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Much like your brand-new cell phone is outdated a month after you purchase it, the pace at which many technologies are evolving has left people just entering the workforce with the feeling their skills are last year’s model, with few immediate options to upgrade.

This is especially prevalent in the area of geospatial information systems — or GIS, an umbrella term for a variety of surveying, data collection and analysis tools — where everyone from the military to your local grocery store is starting to understand its potential, and explosive growth has the industry poised to reach the multibillion-dollar tier in the coming years.

But with a $500,000 grant from the University of Wisconsin System in hand, the UW-Eau Claire department of geography and anthropology hopes to bridge the gap between the classroom and workforce, and become a leader in producing students with the most up-to-date and marketable skills by creating a multi-disciplinary geospatial major over the next two years.

The UW-EC Geospatial Initiative is more than just updating the program’s current GIS offerings, and sets itself apart from other programs across the country in that it partners with a handful of businesses from around the state and around the region. That enables potential employers to provide direct input on curriculum and connects them with students for internships before they graduate.

Christina Hupy, one of a few geography professors who are spearheading the project along with faculty from the computer science and physics departments, said the collaboration with businesses has put educators more in tune with the skills that make students employable.

“The idea is to really take some of this cutting edge technology and the kind of problems students might face once they get out into the workforce and bring them into the classroom,” she said. “Because there’s been a lot of growth in the industry and it’s always a challenge for faculty to keep up with the changes.

“People at Wisconsin businesses obviously are eager to find fresh employees that have the liberal education model, but also very specific skills.”

Recognizing a need

Over the past few years, UW-Eau Claire geography students have had the option to further their knowledge of GIS technologies through a non-major geospatial certificate program, or 18 credits of GIS-intensive courses in addition to completing the geography major. Hupy said part of the reason for updating the program was the early success of the certificate. Thirty students enrolled the first semester it was offered, and many of those students have gone on to land jobs at international geospatial companies such as ESRI, Garmin and others.

The interest in the program is consistent with the number of jobs becoming available in the field. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor released a competency model — or the core skills for pursuing a career in GIS — and predicted it would be one of the fastest-growing industries in the decade to come.

GIS technology started mostly with mapping applications in the environmental fields, using software to plot data from GPS units to create maps useful to the operations of foresters, farmers, biologists, emergency planners and many others. Those fields still rely on GIS for those purposes, but the evolution of the technology has allowed them to collect and use data more easily and in ways never before possible.

With the advent of LiDAR — remote sensing programs — and unmanned aerial systems — drones to the layperson — farmers may be able to fly over their fields and collect images of what sections of their crop are being affected by certain pests. The same thing holds true for foresters, or biologists looking to map the spread of invasive species. Given the surveillance possibilities, military and police are also extremely interested in the technology.

Another example is Phoenix Park in downtown Eau Claire, which owes much of its success as a community gathering place to quality engineering and great location, aided by the use of GIS technology.

However, the Geospatial Initiative at UW-Eau Claire puts an emphasis on using GIS in ways a lot of people might not think of otherwise. In the past few years the field has merged with business and marketing, which may use maps to plot certain demographics in a city and specifically target mailing advertisements.

Retailers also use the technology to track the average shopper’s path through their store, ultimately changing the way they look at the layout and presentation of their building. Then there’s the story of the enterprising Minnesotans who used unmanned aerial systems to deliver beer to ice fisherman. The possibilities are infinite.

For that reason, UW-Eau Claire will continue to offer the GIS certificates in addition to creating a new major, in an effort to cater to those who want to major in something like business but exceed the skills of their peers with knowledge of GIS.

Adam Derringer, a project manager for the engineering, architectural and geospatial consulting firm Ayres Associates, said the program’s partnership with employers is mutually beneficial to students and businesses. The company has 11 offices nationwide, with its geospatial services based in Madison, and is just one of a handful of businesses participating in the program.

With more than 15 years of experience as a GIS professional, Derringer has seen first-hand how quickly the technology has advanced and how tough it can be for beginners to keep up. He said current FAA regulations on unmanned aerial systems are also a limiting factor on building skills in the field, but universities are some of the few entities able to gain permits for research and educational purposes.

“I foresee multiple different industries being able to utilize the technology, and the workforce is going to be very small compared to the uses for this technology,” he said. “It’s critical to have an employment pool that is highly trained in these areas, but it’s just not possible right now.

“Obviously as a company we’ve supported UW-EC in many different ways, but we’re excited to work with Christina and her team. It’s an excellent opportunity to give back to the community and train a workforce that is absolutely critical to continuing growth in the industry, and also in helping Wisconsin in moving forward,” Derringer said. “Wisconsin has been a leader in geospatial technologies for years and I think this investment will help it continue to be a leader for years to come.”

Already reaping rewards

Even with the geospatial major under construction, the UW-Eau Claire geography department’s emphasis on GIS skills has already paid off for its pupils.

Recent UW-Eau Claire graduate Hannah Bristol entered the program four years ago with no knowledge of GIS or its applications, but quickly realized how essential the tool could prove in pursuing a career in alternative energy.

Shortly after receiving her diploma she was offered a job that was too good to pass up at Polaris Industries in Medina, Minn. There she is using her GIS skills to develop a cell phone app for ATV aficionados that puts maps, weather conditions, lodging and more at their fingertips. But her goal is to one day use her skills for environmental purposes, and bring the technology to lesser-developed countries.

“I’m still interested in alternative energy and I’m interested in taking it to places that are less developed,” she said. “I’m really happy that I was able to go through the program at UW-Eau Claire. I think we have a program that sets people apart, especially from other UW schools.”

Travis Haas, a senior geography student at UW-Eau Claire, was initially interested in anthropology. But when he started taking GIS classes, his focus shifted toward cartography. With a graduation date set for December, he hasn’t entered the workforce just yet. But while perusing various online job resources, he said he has seen the demand for GIS skills and is confident he will find work shortly after his departure from the university.

“I keep being told there’s a lot going on in GIS, which is why I’m considering taking a UAS class if they offer it. There’s a lot of prospects in that field,” he said. “When I was looking for summer work I saw a lot of GIS technician jobs all over the country.”

Hupy said evidence of the utility of geospatial skills lies in the diverse nature of graduates’ career paths.

“It’s so widespread. We have people who work in environmental consulting, we have people who start geospatial consulting themselves,” she said. “We have a student who was recently hired by a French non-governmental organization and she’s using GIS for humanitarian aid. She’s based in Amman, Jordan and she’s using GIS to help direct their aid efforts.”

However, there is much work yet to be done in order to continue providing quality opportunity for students. Hupy said the first business summit is set for this summer, in which participating businesses will sit down with faculty to prioritize the core GIS skills listed in the U.S. Department of Labor Report.

Some new courses, including one focusing on the PYTHON programming language, will be offered this fall. And over the next two years in addition to the geospatial major, Hupy said the department hopes to create certificates focused on LiDAR and unmanned aerial systems.

“I think it’s important that we are bringing in the different departments from across the campus and I think the internship piece is also key … so were going to work really hard at that as well,” Hupy said. “In this day and age people want to know that their education is going to help them be successful once they graduate, and we think it’s really key for faculty to be in touch with what’s on the other side.”

“It’s an excellent opportunity to give back to the community and train a workforce that is absolutely critical to continuing growth in the industry, and also in helping Wisconsin in moving forward.” — Adam Derringer Project manager, Ayres Associates

“The idea is to really take some of this
cutting edge technology and the kind of problems students might face once they get out into the workforce and bring them into the classroom.” — Christina Hupy Geography professor, UW-Eau Claire

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Rob Hanson is a freelance writer

from Eau Claire. He can be reached

at hansonrw@uwec.edu.

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