Our goal in developing these courses was to bring geospatial awareness to traditional students and upskill incumbent GIST professionals. In the first year, we have already received feedback from students telling us, 'This course is why I received the job,' which is amazing.
How to Modernize GIS Education with a Microcredential to Ensure Workplace Success
• Monroe Community College introduced a new three-course GIST microcredential program for students to enhance their skill sets with specialized training in geospatial data acquisition and management, web mapping, and geospatial programming.
• The new microcredential program aims to meet industry trends in modern GIS and can be taken on its own, or credits can be applied to the GIST certificate and associate of applied sciences in GIS degree.
Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, New York, has shaped its coursework with labor market intelligence to ensure that its campus of more than 12,000 students is meeting emerging workforce needs.
For over five years, the college has offered courses in introductory geographic information system (GIS) technology, remote sensing, cartography, spatial analysis, and a capstone course as part of an online 24-credit Geospatial Information Science and Technology (GIST) certificate program and associate of applied sciences in geography degree (GIS concentration). With the geospatial job market projected to grow faster than average according to the 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics findings, MCC launched a 9-credit microcredential program in 2021 to keep pace with modern GIS skill sets.
"When it comes to modern GIS, these courses are touching on what is new in this industry—problems like streamlining GIS workflows, using dashboards, and how to create or modify scripts," said Nia Beazer, a recent MCC graduate. "We are not going to touch on everything because we only have so much time in these courses. But we've dabbled in a little bit of everything, which has prepared me so much for my future in this industry."
Students can either enroll in three classes to earn the microcredential or use the earned credits toward a GIST certificate or the new associate degree in GIS. Funding for the new degree and microcredential came from the National Science Foundation, which also offered support through its Integrated Geospatial Education and Technology Training (iGETT): Remote Sensing project and the Advanced Technological Education Mentor-Connect Program.
Building a Curriculum That Reflects How GIS Is Used Today
To develop the coursework, Jonathon Little, MCC's associate professor of geography and GIS, sent a survey to geospatial professionals across the state who subscribed to two GIS list servers maintained by the New York State GIS Association and the Geographic Information Sharing Special Interest Group. "We were really trying to get a feel for our local or state GIS needs, and I think it proved very valuable," Little said.
The survey asked them to assess topics and skills most desirable in the workplace. It revealed what specific skills and technological knowledge were needed in the workforce. The survey also revealed that professionals who had graduated several years earlier needed to learn new skills such as web mapping or programming with Python. "Our goal in developing these courses was to bring geospatial awareness to traditional students and upskill incumbent GIST professionals."
Little, with his colleagues Wayne Howard and Heather Pierce from the Chemistry and Geosciences Department, developed three pillar courses. A focus on geospatial data acquisition and management, web mapping, and geospatial programming addressed competency skills identified in the survey and were based on feedback from the college's GIST advisory board. Additional feedback was given by members of the National GeoTech Center, a National Science-funded organization that provides GIST educators with curriculum resources and model core competencies that meet workforce needs. The courses at MCC needed to reflect how GIS is used today and ensure that students would be competitive job applicants.
"In the first year, we have already received feedback from students telling us, 'This course is why I received the job,' which is amazing," said Little. "The program has a lot of interest from professionals across the state." The program has seen tremendous growth this past year with 150 new students enrolled in the introduction to GIS course and more than 40 new students enrolled in both the web mapping and remote sensing courses. In 2021, nearly 150 students completed the microcredential interest form for the upcoming year.
The curriculum includes classroom and lab experiences for students to learn specialized software like ArcGIS Dashboards, ArcGIS Field Maps, ArcGIS Hub, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Pro, ArcPy, and ArcGIS Survey123. In addition to the coursework, students are required to create a portfolio using ArcGIS StoryMaps to showcase their best work and sign up for a LinkedIn profile to begin professional networking.
The combination of flexible online courses and detailed preparation for students to enter the workforce is what drew Nia Beazer to MCC's GIST programs. Beazer decided to change careers in early 2020, just before the pandemic started. "I've watched my husband [work in GIS] for years, and I knew I had to do this too. I absolutely love it."
"As a mother caring for two young children at home during the pandemic, flexibility was a must-have for her associate studies. "When I read about MCC's fully remote program, I knew it was the one for me."
Modern GIS Education Is Workforce Preparation
While Beazer pursued the associate of applied sciences in GIS degree, she also earned the GIST certificate and microcredential credits to advance her skills.
Some of the advanced GIS topics in her coursework included unpiloted aerial system (UAS) data collection and processing, mobile data collection, automation using Python, and enterprise geodatabase. "We touched on so many things," said Beazer.
For Beazer, the web mapping course was a favorite because she learned the usefulness of applications, web GIS tools, Google Earth, Google Maps, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS Hub, which proved essential in her internship at the National GeoTech Center. She created a hub site to house all the Python courses and data that other institutions could use for their courses.
Beazer also learned to automate the production of a map series using Python in her introduction to programming course.
"This was my first time learning how to customize and automate GIS applications using Python scripting language," she said, noting that in almost every advertised job she sees, recruiters are looking for applicants with Python experience.
Alumni mentors (led by Catherine DuBreck) work with students to ensure they understand the material and offer career advice as they prepare to enter the geospatial field. For Beazer, having a mentor to work with her through every step in her programming course was key to her final project's success. "It's great to be able to communicate with someone who's been exactly where you are, and they ended up becoming successful in this industry."
For Little, ensuring students succeed in the workplace was key to the microcredential program's purpose. MCC staff will continue to evolve the program, as GIS does, to meet students where they are in their careers. "As technology changes, the courses are going to be changing, and we'll be modifying them as needed based on feedback from the advisory board," said Little.
Little also hopes to expand the classroom curriculum to include challenges facing the global community through higher education partners in Kazakhstan, Malawi, Jordan, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico. "I'm working on a grant to support diversity, equity, and inclusion through our partners in a global virtual community."
Empower Student Success in the Workforce
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