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UW-Eau Claire receives $418,869 grant for Geospatial Education Initiative

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Monday, June 30th 2014
| Eau Claire, WI


UW-Eau Claire receives $418,869 grant for Geospatial Education Initiative

Geospatial education at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is undergoing a significant transformation to provide students with real-world training, skills and workforce readiness necessary for successful careers in the growing geospatial industry.

An interdisciplinary Geospatial Education Initiative (GEI) developed at UW-Eau Claire by a team of faculty members from the geography and anthropology, physics and astronomy, computer science, and information systems departments has been awarded a three-year $418,869 grant from the Growth Agenda for Wisconsin Grants Program.

In addition to the GEI grant, UW-Eau Claire received a second Growth Agenda grant for a project to broaden the impact of undergraduate research on student success and economic development in Wisconsin. Together, UW-Eau Claire's grants represent almost one-third of the nearly $1.4 million awarded through the Growth Agenda grant program.

The purpose of the GEI is to develop and promote skills needed for today's students entering the geospatial workforce. Geospatial technology is a term used by industry and government to refer to the tools (hardware and software) used in global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), computer cartography, remote sensing and field sensors that help in acquiring, storing, processing, analyzing and communicating information connected to a specific location.

"These cutting-edge technologies are used to map, visualize and analyze the world around us," said Dr. Christina Hupy, an associate professor of geography and GEI project lead. "Increasingly, geospatial technologies and the resulting spatial data are in high demand as their utility in decision-making and problem-solving becomes evident across industries ranging from health care to business development. The GEI aims to increase the number of Wisconsin graduates placed within successful careers in the geospatial industry, as well as related industries, by directly improving access to high-quality academic programs and innovative educational opportunities."

The U.S. Department of Labor has listed geospatial technology and its use as one of 14 "high-growth, high-demand and economically vital sectors of the American economy" and estimates its growth rate to be almost 35 percent annually.

"The demand for graduates with geospatial talent is clear," said Dr. Patricia A. Kleine, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UW-Eau Claire. "The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts Wisconsin will see an $88 million economic impact from 2015-17 with $1 million in taxes and 665 new jobs created. UW-Eau Claire's experience in spring 2013 with an inaugural offering of a geospatial certificate provides a solid foundation to meet a burgeoning need in the state."

The GEI program advances the University of Wisconsin System Growth Agenda goals of increasing the number of Wisconsin graduates, developing a workforce to meet industry needs and fostering engagement with industries that serve local communities, Kleine said.

"The initiative capitalizes on the collective expertise and passion of UW-Eau Claire faculty in geography, business, physics and computer science as well as their strategic relationships with geospatial-related businesses," Kleine said. "It engages students in real-world learning situations and experiences with cutting-edge technologies that align directly with industry needs and developments."

The GEI has three core goals that will have a broad institutional impact and produce systemic change, Hupy said.

The first goal is to develop informative relationships between UW-Eau Claire faculty and geospatial business partners in Wisconsin. Faculty will meet with industry experts during a summer curriculum summit to gather input on existing curriculum, collaboratively design innovative and relevant course work, and create high-impact activities that engage students directly with geospatial professionals, such as internships, cooperative writing, development of intellectual property and cooperative problem-solving.

"Partnerships with geospatial professionals will help us determine the industry-relevant skills and qualifications needed in the workforce," Hupy said. "Industry experts will help guide our curriculum to ensure our students are getting the most relevant education needed to be productive and skilled employees immediately after graduating."

The second goal of the GEI is to create a sustainable and relevant internship program with geospatial-related businesses. The internship program will connect students with Wisconsin geospatial businesses and provide all participating students a relevant workforce experience allowing them to develop talent, build professionalism, begin networking and acquire the confidence to graduate and enter a lifelong career in geospatial technology, Hupy said.

The third goal of the GEI is to transform geospatial education at UW-Eau Claire by developing new course offerings, additional certificates and a comprehensive geospatial major. Grant funds will be used for course development to fully integrate computer programming into the geospatial curriculum. In the newly proposed geospatial major, students will build a strong foundation in programming by taking an existing course offered in the computer science department as a prerequisite to the required geospatial courses. Several new courses based on cutting-edge and high-demand technology, such as business location analytics, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) technology, will be developed and integrated into the curriculum.

"These technologies are in high demand, yet they are not accessible to our students," Hupy said. "Currently, no other University of Wisconsin System campus is offering this type of cutting-edge curriculum. Students will benefit from firsthand experience with survey-grade GPS, fixed-wing UAS, rotary UAS, telemetry equipment, infrared and thermal infrared cameras, and powerful workstations. As a result of the new course offerings, the geography and anthropology department will design and implement a geospatial comprehensive major, as well as additional certificates in UAS offered jointly with the physics department; and a business geographics certificate offered jointly with the College of Business. The comprehensive major is transformative because it will include curriculum infused with cutting-edge technologies; industry-relevant, student-centered curriculum; and integrated learning throughout."

Ayres Associates, a multispecialty engineering consulting firm headquartered in Eau Claire, uses a geospatial component in almost every project it works on, including environmental, transportation, land use, hydrology, agriculture and business analysis, said Adam Derringer, project manager at Ayres Associates.

"From our perspective, we see a vital need for our staff to have knowledge of geospatial information," Derringer said. "Other universities in Wisconsin have GIS programs that seem to focus on a particular sector such as environmental or business. What can be more difficult to find are institutions that teach students a more comprehensive understanding of how different forms of geospatial information can work together or those that make a concerted effort to focus on emerging technologies in the geospatial field. This is where UW-Eau Claire differs with its plans to work side by side with industry professionals to not only build a modern and relevant curriculum, but also continue working with geospatial professionals to keep it relevant. In addition, UW-Eau Claire will require internships and place students in the workforce to get real-world experience."

The GEI will not only benefit Ayres Associates as a single company; it will benefit new and existing Wisconsin businesses as a whole, Derringer said.

"Technologies like UAS will also open up small site projects in fields such as archeology, transportation, surface monitoring, field analysis and more," Derringer said. "In other words, projects that were once deemed cost-prohibitive using traditional aerial mapping systems will soon be feasible using UAS technology and a ready retrained workforce."

UW-Eau Claire alumni working in the geospatial field also are interested in the expanded curriculum the GEI will create. Jacob Wise, a 2011 geography graduate currently working as an aerial estimator with Haverfield Aviation headquartered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, said returning to UW-Eau Claire to expand his knowledge in geospatial technology, especially LiDAR technology, would be advantageous and is highly encouraged by his employer.

"The geography and anthropology department at UW-Eau Claire provides skills to undergraduate students that many other universities throughout the country don't offer until graduate school," Wise said. "The enhancement in the curriculum will continue to set UW-Eau Claire geospatial majors above other university graduates by focusing on industry-required skills and knowledge. As a graduate of UW-Eau Claire, many of the skills I learned in geospatial courses have been used in the workplace on a daily basis. With the GEI's focus on expanding geospatial education, I can see UW-Eau Claire becoming known as the nation's top geospatial university."

For more information about the Geospatial Education Initiative or the Growth Agenda for Wisconsin grant, contact Dr. Christina Hupy at hupycm@uwec.edu or 715-836-3313, or visit the Geospatial Education Initiative Web page.

Image: Geospatial Lab: Students receive hands-on training to enhance effective learning and use of geospatial technology.

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