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Secrets to Developing a GIS-Skilled Workforce
By Lt. Col. Mike Wermuth and Lt. Col. Jeth Fogg

Editor's note: The authors' innovative approach to teaching GIS at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, uses teamwork and a holistic approach that focuses on making the best use of the GIS resources that the academy already has and sharing its newly acquired capabilities. The result has been a substantial increase in the GIS literacy of students and faculty in less than two years.

USAFA faculty has learned the secret to successfully graduating a GIS-skilled workforce. Members of the GIS Working Group, formed in 2004, were amazed by the wealth of resources—computers, software, expertise, and funds—hidden in various departments. What was needed was a strategic plan to develop students who were proficient in GIS technologies. Cooperation now results in improved educational outcomes. This approach is also providing more funds for GIS research and closer relationships with outside organizations.

This program educates both students and faculty. The start-to-finish approach is integrated across the academy in a comprehensive, multidisciplinary curriculum. An integrated GIS solution brings a positive synergy to the academic environment that can translate into a more productive workforce.

A little bit here, a little bit there, and a lot of misunderstanding everywhere accurately described the GIS situation at the academy when Mike Wermuth (one of the authors) was asked to temporarily fill the director of geosciences position in spring 2004. When Wermuth found himself responsible for a division that he knew little about, he used a leadership technique that had worked well for him in the past: he grabbed a notebook, started wandering around, and asked a bunch of questions. He acted dumb, which was easy to do under the circumstances. He soon teamed up with Jeth Fogg (the other author) from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (DFCE).

Wermuth quickly learned that DFCE was leading the way in many areas of GIS at USAFA. While the academy had great GIS resources, particularly its people, progress with GIS had been very slow and most of the faculty had no idea what GIS was about. Wermuth and Fogg learned that getting the right group of people together can make positive things happen in a hurry. This article shares some of the steps taken in planning and promoting the program so others can have even greater success in GIS education.

The program's history furnishes some key lessons. Wermuth started asking questions in the Geography Department. He asked basic who, what, where, and how questions. Faculty members gave him some very concerned looks when he asked "why" questions such as Why do we bother to teach GIS? Why should the taxpayers pay for a GIS program at our university? and Why on earth would a student ever want to take a GIS class? This led to the first secret.

Secret No. 1: If you want your GIS program to succeed, you must have compelling answers to the question, Why GIS? If you cannot give a compelling answer, there is no future for your GIS program and you are wasting valuable resources that should be used elsewhere.

Fortunately, Wermuth and Fogg work with people who are excited about GIS technology and the impact it is having on the military and were encouraged to press on. Since Wermuth was clueless about GIS and teaching GIS, he cleverly surrounded himself with smart people. To do this, he asked some "who" questions such as Who has the money? Who can find the datasets? and Who knows how to make the software hum? The answers were a little surprising and started the program rolling.

It turns out that the smart people were spread throughout the faculty. There was remote sensing expertise in the Physics Department. Civil engineers and geographers were experimenting with classroom teaching techniques. The Biology Department had field experience with data collection, and a couple of faculty members in the Computer Science Department were interested in software development.

These individuals were invited to form a working group. Once the word got out, members of the library, military studies, and space operations programs expressed interest and also became part of the working group. Forming the working group led to the second secret.

Secret No. 2: No individual university department has a monopoly on GIS information, expertise, and experience. You can choose to compete with one another or cooperate. We chose to cooperate.

There are efficiencies associated with a working group. There is an economic efficiency related to sharing resources. Intellectual efficiency comes from the collective knowledge and wisdom the group brings to course development, leading to a comprehensive curriculum.

Collaborative Planning

The academy has a large academic core course requirement that makes it is nearly impossible to carve out distinct GIS courses within the core curriculum. However, through the cooperation of the working group, GIS curriculum opportunities within existing core courses were identified. The versatile nature of GIS let the program gain footholds in many departments.

For example, every cadet is required to successfully complete Social Science (Soc Sci) 112, a geopolitics course. Because the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) use remote sensing and Esri ArcMap products to brief the National Security Council on current events, this course was an opportunity to introduce cadets to ArcMap and the concepts of remote sensing. This use of opportunities is the second step in a building block approach.

The first step in the building block process was to load FalconView (a mapping system that is an integral part of the Portable Flight Planning Software) and ArcGIS 9.1 on the cadet computers. In Soc Sci 112, cadets are only expected to manipulate the data provided. In their sophomore year, cadets take Civil Engineering (Civ Engr) 210 in which they will learn to build and manipulate a database. In one of the course exercises, the cadets are asked to build an expeditionary air base bed-down location and populate the base with deployed units. This includes planning for utility systems, tent city layout, and preattack planning activities. They must also query the system to take postattack actions to recover the installation they have developed. This is accomplished in an ArcMap 9 environment.

Thanks to the coordination efforts of the working group, ArcMap 9 is the standard software application across the curriculum. All faculty and students will be upgraded to ArcMap 9.1 in the near future. Previously, students were frustrated because one department used ArcView 3.3 for classroom activities, while another department used ArcGIS 8.3.

As juniors, every student is required to take one of three core option courses. One-third of the students (approximately 300) select Geography (Geo) 310, the geospatial information analysis course that requires students to understand how GIS works and how to make the technology work for them. If students continue in the Geo-Intelligence (GEOINT) major, they will take Geo 410, the advanced geospatial information analysis course, and a remote-sensing course, Geo 382. Unfortunately, enrollment numbers drop off to approximately 20 students in each of these courses, but options at the senior level are growing rapidly.

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