“We are equipping students not just to understand the GIS software that Esri provides. We want them to become expert users of those tools to give them a foundation to apply the software in any situation after they graduate.”
University Students Gain Valuable Workplace Skills with Drone Education and GIS Courses
William Shuart, a geographer with the Army Corps of Engineers and an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Rice Rivers Center, employs the latest Esri technology (ArcGIS Drone2Map, Site Scan for ArcGIS, ArcGIS Pro) in his courses to empower students with in-demand job skills and a foundational understanding of GIS and drone concepts to apply in the workplace
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has a long research-focused history, starting as the medical department of Hampden-Sydney in 1838 and later merging with a professional college to become the public research institute it is today. The university dedicates 86 percent of the federal research funds it receives to life sciences, offering a robust academic program for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students and preparing them for careers. Of those who graduated in May 2019, 74 percent found a job or enrolled in graduate school within six months. Hands-on experience and access to renowned research have also been fostered at the university's Rice Rivers Center field station, located along the tidal James River in Virginia.
There, the university has leveraged geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing technologies for environmental life science research and courses. One professor has taken the tools a step further, using them to bolster universal job skills that students will benefit from after graduation.
William Shuart, currently a geographer with the Army Corps of Engineers, came to the university as a student in 1997. He finished his master's degree in environmental studies and is currently an assistant professor at VCU. Since the beginning of his career, he has applied the latest Esri technologies in both research and his classroom instruction. The goal is to empower students with a foundational understanding of GIS that they can use as part of their technical and soft skills in the workplace.
"We are equipping students not just to understand the GIS software that Esri provides," Shuart said. "We want them to become expert users of those tools to give them a foundation to apply the software in any situation after they graduate. It is an unknown box where they are going to go after graduation, so it is my job to help them become quality employees when they graduate."
Tools to Empower Students for Big-Picture Thinking and Workforce Application
Shuart teaches two courses, Environmental Remote Sensing and Application of Drone Technology, to undergraduate and graduate students. In his 25-year academic career, Shuart has utilized the latest GIS and drone software available, most recently teaching with ArcGIS Drone2Map, Site Scan for ArcGIS, and ArcGIS Pro. For Shuart, the challenge has been to evolve his approach to best fit technological advances and student needs. He spends time researching the latest uses of GIS in the real world and incorporating the most recent technology and software releases for his classes.
"Twenty-five years ago, a GIS [professional] had to focus on being an information technology, network, database, and server person. Students had to understand the hardware, software, and data analysis to put it all together," Shuart said. "Fast-forward to now, they don't need to know all those things because the infrastructure exists. Now the focus is on programming, bringing disparate data together, pushing the technology—for example, using a different kind of camera on a drone. They're really on the cutting edge in terms of GIS and remote sensing."
Shuart 's teaching philosophy focuses on bringing value to the students by correlating GIS and drone technologies and their best practices with the skills, knowledge, and abilities necessary for jobs postgraduation.
"Whether they are planning [drone] flights; bringing Excel data into CSV [files], GIS or GPS, and remote sensing; or showcasing the data in a PowerPoint or in Site Scan, they are learning valuable skills in the process, like project management and effective communication."
Both course structures use Shuart's T-shaped philosophy The horizontal line of the T represents the wide variety of skills a student needs in a workplace—communication, collaboration, the ability to pitch an idea or proposal, web app development, time management, and project coordination. And the vertical line represents the depth of knowledge the student has in software, drone concepts and the application of the technologies. "The width of your skills helps get you an interview, but the depth of those skills provides the ability to truly compete for the job," Shuart said.
In his remote sensing class, one week students may focus on the synthetic aperture radar, while another week they'll use forestry lidar for a biomass assessment.
"On the one hand, this provides students the ability to get into the software between classes, to play with data and get to know the semantics," Shuart said. "But on the other hand, this teaches them to be consistent and to deliver in the end. That's the way jobs are set up: you have long-term deliverables, but you also have to show up and do the daily work."
A final project both develops workplace job skills and enhances students' understanding of the technology. They apply the technology to solve a problem that is meaningful to them. Students then collect the data, complete research, draft a write-up, and present their project for 10 minutes to their peers—and the faculty.
"The thing I hated when I was a student was, the professor got to decide my grade based on two tests—a midterm and a final, right? Nobody ever liked that," Shuart said. "But this semester-long project gives students 35 percent of their grade while they're also learning how to use the technology to solve a real-world problem and gaining transferable skills."
Connecting the Tools to the Problems That Need to Be Solved: A Student's Success
Angela Armstrong, a former student of Shuart's and a teaching assistant who now also works as a GIS analyst at Ørsted, said she gained many of her skills and an understanding of ArcGIS technologies from the projects she completed during Shuart's courses. Over her academic career, Armstrong took several courses with Shuart that followed the same structure emphasizing project work. Armstrong collaborated with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on its salt management strategy program. The department investigates chloride levels that are rising in water bodies in northern Virginia due to water runoff from where salt is used to deice the roads during winter storms. Armstrong conducted a large spatial analysis project to quantify impervious land surfaces, classified by land category, within northern Virginia cities and counties. The goal was to have a visual representation of where the majority of the runoff occurred. Armstrong shared the results in a presentation to approximately 150 stakeholders. She went a step further, creating a plan for potential education and outreach activities that DEQ could use to inform residents, since residential neighborhoods had the highest amount of runoff. The project is ongoing for DEQ.
"These courses are very much not to learn how to use GIS on a computer but rather to learn why GIS is useful, and all the different possibilities to solve these real-world problems," Armstrong said.
In addition to the projects and weekly assignments, the class encourages hands-on learning. In the Application of Drone Technology course, students prepare by surveying the land and making a flight plan for a real-world location, thus learning how to run the flight paths from start to finish. In the field, students do the surveying, ensure ground control accuracy (both relative and absolute), and occasionally fly the drone. Students then run the collected data through workflows using ArcGIS Drone2Map and Site Scan for ArcGIS.
"Doing that in a few different locations got students a lot more excited than just learning how to use GIS or Esri software," said Armstrong, Shuart's former student.
The class also invites guest speakers—including environmental quality agents, engineers, insurers, government employees, Esri staff, GIS consultants, and analysts—to discuss their wide-ranging careers. "Finding out from others how different sectors use the same technology in different ways was very helpful in understanding what parts of GIS students should focus on, for what career paths they are interested in," Armstrong said. "The possibilities are endless."
Armstrong hopes to see more educators ground their lessons in real-world problems. "The biggest thing about GIS is, you can truly teach anyone to use it as a technical skill. However, teaching them how to leverage it so that it connects to problems that need to be solved—that is the most important part."
An Innovative Future for GIS and Drone Technologies in Higher Education
Shuart's teaching philosophy embraces a community approach. He encourages students to explore the overlap of disciplines and connect with other GIS experts in places such as Esri Young Professionals Network "I tell my students to get involved with other young professionals so that they are not siloed to their specific field," he said. "And I hope that when they graduate, they can collaborate with other subject matter experts to work through challenges together."
Shuart expects GIS technology in the future to be even more integrated into daily operations for municipalities, businesses, and educational institutes. "The things that are siloed are going to become more interdisciplinary because systems are more accessible for collaboration with the injection of GIS," Shuart said.