Mapping without Boundaries: Geospatial Centroid Reaches across University and Beyond
Inside Colorado State University's Morgan Library resides the Geospatial Centroid—a geographic information system (GIS) resource, education, and service center for students, faculty, and the greater community. Since its inception in 2009, the Centroid has grown into an invaluable resource that reaches across traditional boundaries to provide geospatial support services, hands-on training, and student internship opportunities. The culture and spirit of the Centroid welcome anyone who has the curiosity and willingness to engage.
From humble beginnings with limited financial and administrative support, the Centroid is now well established and flourishing, thanks to creative approaches, dedicated individuals, and an unwavering belief in the power of geospatial technologies to impact research, education, and action.
"The increasing importance of geospatial applications in our everyday life, economy, science, and society means that the Centroid provides an important role in providing leadership and guidance," states Dr. Melinda Laituri, director of the Geospatial Centroid. "With its neutral position in the library, the Centroid enjoys the ability to serve any professor, researcher, or student, regardless of discipline or subject area. Spatial technologies are powerful, and the insight they can provide needs to be open and accessible to all."
In 2009, faculty in the Warner College of Natural Resources (WCNR) initiated the concept of a center that could provide geospatial data and technical support to the campus community, focusing on common technologies and data regardless of content specialization. Originally housed within the college, the Centroid slowly built its reputation based on delivery, reliability, and consistency. One by one, GIS projects flowed in. One by one, student interns offered to volunteer in order to gain more professional experience.
"We started small and allowed the Centroid's services, technologies, and results to speak for themselves," noted Sophia Linn, assistant director. "It was not a hard sell, because the maps and GIS products proved their own worth. We simply provided a means to get there."
Inside Colorado State University's Morgan Library resides the Geospatial Centroid—a GIS resource, education, and service center for students, faculty, and the greater community. From humble beginnings, the Centroid is now well established and flourishing offering internships, timely GIS training and workshops, and is responsive to changing technologies and the needs of the community.
Soon, researchers were sharing stories about their experiences with the Centroid and their appreciation of its services. This enabled the Centroid to connect with colleges across campus to demonstrate its value. "People were interested in what the Centroid was doing and wanted to learn how geospatial technologies might help them as well," said Linn.
One of the unique approaches the Centroid used to create cross-campus support was to occasionally offer services first. The Centroid staff would develop and present a custom-made interactive map or generate preliminary spatial data before researchers committed to a project. This provided a visual, tangible demonstration of the value of GIS. From these efforts, the Centroid was then incorporated into multiple research project proposals, leading to an increase in financial and cross-disciplinary support.
Finding a Home
After five years in WCNR, it was clear that the Centroid needed a new home. With strong support from the Dean of Libraries (who at that time also served as the campus IT director), the Centroid moved to the library, where it received tangible resources in terms of office space, new computers, and administrative support, as well as intangible support in terms of recognition that it now truly served the greater community.
In 2019, the Centroid was recognized as an emerging core facility from the CSU Vice President for Research office. This has been a significant boon, both financially and administratively, for the Centroid's further development and expansion.
"By design and from the start, we wanted to be certain we were building a strong foundation. Now those efforts have paid off because we had overwhelming support from all corners of campus indicating that we truly are a core facility that supports the entire campus," said Laituri.
Outreach and Education
The Centroid continues to build awareness and offer educational opportunities. Each semester, the Centroid offers timely GIS training and workshops, responsive to changing technologies and the needs of the community.
Expertly guided by Elizabeth Tulanowski, Centroid education coordinator and former Esri instructor, it also offers information about geospatial courses and geospatial help desk services. It hosts the annual GIS Day event. It launched the Colorado GIS in Higher Education Summit, which is in its 10th year and hosted by a different Colorado institution every year. The event welcomes GIS educators to share best practices and learn from each other.
CSU is primarily an Esri shop and strives to keep current in the ever-evolving and improving technologies. It promotes the use of the Esri ArcGIS Online platform as a teaching tool, supporting an increasing number of courses in using ArcGIS StoryMaps and other online tools.
CSU also manages the ArcGIS license for higher education entities throughout Colorado and works with other institutions to keep current. In addition, the Centroid recognizes the fast-paced nature of geospatial technologies and seeks to integrate the Esri platform with other open-source tools.
Anchored by a vibrant internship program, the Centroid enables students to further develop their technical skills while interacting with and learning from the Centroid's diverse partners. A unique workplace on campus, the Centroid provides to motivated GIS students, from any discipline, the opportunity to further develop their technical skills in a supportive, creative, and welcoming environment.
"One of the most rewarding aspects of the Centroid is watching our student interns develop personally and professionally—from tentatively taking on new tasks to slowly embracing new challenges to then fully completing their own projects," said Linn. "The Centroid provides them with a stepping-stone between their academic learning and their future career paths beyond the university."
Students from public health, history, natural resources, and business have passed through the Centroid. Some postgraduates have parlayed their internship experience into meaningful work. After graduating, many say that their experiences at the Centroid—specifically, their skills in GIS and real project work—gave them a leg up in landing a job or pursuing further studies.
While at the Centroid, Max Cook eagerly embraced any opportunity that came his way. He learned about cartography, Python programming, model building, web mapping development, and remote sensing while also serving as a go-to person for problem solving and help desk assistance. In addition, Cook contributed to a project for The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Upon graduation, he was hired by TNC, which clearly appreciated his experience and attitude and recognized his value to the organization. Cook is now in graduate school in geography and geospatial science, while still maintaining a part-time position with TNC.
Another intern, Brandon Lemire, also fully engaged with his internship experience. Highly skilled technically, Lemire contributed greatly to the technical infrastructure of the Centroid while he was a student. He also gained a diversity of new skills while working on projects for the National Park Service (NPS), among others. Upon graduation, NPS hired Lemire as its remote sensing lead.
Jamie Hoover, the first intern employed by the Centroid, worked on multiple projects while at the Centroid including developing an application to analyze wind data and planning the first GIS in Higher Education Summit. She has since completed her PhD and now is a full-time instructor in GIS and remote sensing at Front Range Community College.
While CSU's Geospatial Centroid fills a need for the Fort Collins campus and community, it also provides an example for other organizations wanting to establish cross-disciplinary GIS services. Institutions interested in establishing a similar center are encouraged to reach out to Geospatial Centroid staff to learn more.
The Centroid brings the campus community together in unanticipated ways, opening new avenues for collaboration and opportunities for learning.