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How GES and the Facility for Advanced Spatial Technology Are Moving CLAS into the Future

How GES and the Facility for Advanced Spatial Technology Are Moving CLAS into the Future

John Wyckoff, CLAS Associate Dean and Professor of Geography & Environmental Sciences

Geospatial thinking, the future of GIS, and interdisciplinary geographical pursuits at CU Denver
There are fields of study where methods have changed so drastically in the span of a single human lifetime that questions once thought impossible to solve are now easily within reach. Medicine, engineering, and aeronautics come to mind when we think of giant technological leaps of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but add Geographic Information Systems to that list. A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-based way of looking at various types of spatial or geographical data that are captured, stored, manipulated, analyzed, managed, and presented through technologies that were largely developed in the past fifty years. GIS creates levels of understanding about our world and its spaces that were never before thought possible by previous generations of geographers and cartographers. When John Wyckoff, now Associate Dean for Faculty and Staff Affairs, earned his PhD in 1980 the field of GIS was still new. Fourteen years later, when he was hired to Chair the Geography and Geology Department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, CLAS had only had one GIS course on the books—and Wyckoff can't be certain it had ever actually been taught. At the time, geography was moving toward the bright future presented by new technological advances in the world of GIS and, more broadly, Geographic Information Science and Technology (GISc&T). One of Wyckoff's prime directives was to launch a GIS program within the department. Today, GISc&T enables teaching and researching in ways that are far more advanced than could have been imagined when Wyckoff was a student himself.

In addition to exciting practical applications and exploration of our communities, education and training in GISc&T is also highly marketable. Many professionals now return to school for a GISc&T certificate to keep up with their professions and enhance their effectiveness on the job. GIS professionals work in private industry, consulting, and academia, which include federal, state and city government jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, geography jobs which include GIS are projected to increase by 29% from 2012 to 2020, much faster than job averages. The GISJobs.com salary survey reports that GIS Technicians in Colorado start at an average salary of $39,220, GIS Analysts average $57,177, GIS Developers at $65,750, GIS Project Managers at $69,500, and a salary greater than $100,000 per year is reported for those with 16 years of experience in GIS in Colorado. According to Payscales.com, those with a Bachelor's Degree in GIS report being "Extremely Satisfied" with their jobs.

In the past decade, John Wyckoff and Deborah Thomas have been joined by faculty members including Rafael Moreno-Sanchez, Peter Anthamatten, and Amanda Weaver, and lectures including Matt Cross, Eric Ross, and Mike Hinke, all collaborating to build a strong program in Geography and Environmental Science (GES). The department now boasts two Master's programs, over 130 undergraduate majors, certificate and minor programs, and one of the finest GIS labs in the region—shared with the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). Deborah S.K. Thomas, Chair and Associate Professor, came to CU Denver in 2000 and has been instrumental in conducting GIS research and steering programing at CU Denver. She says the program today, "is on an upward trajectory with high quality courses and programs that incorporate numerous opportunities for students to work with faculty on cutting-edge meaningful projects."

The focus of the newest program offered by the department, the Master of Arts in Applied Geography and Geospatial Science (accepting applications through March 1, for its first cohort of students to start fall, 2015) emphasizes a balance between preservation of the natural environment with the imperatives of economic development and concerns of social well-being. The degree program will educate and train individuals to identify and understand pressing social and environmental issues, collect and analyze relevant data, and develop and implement innovative solutions. The program's research focus is human-environment interaction, a longstanding hallmark of the discipline of geography. Within this area of critical geographic inquiry, the program emphasizes geospatial science (a federally recognized STEM subject area that includes a range of geo-spatial technologies, including GIS, cartography, and remote sensing). Students will apply their geospatial research skills in the context of hands-on, faculty-led research projects that stress professional development through community engagement and interactive service learning. Graduates of the program will have the knowledge, training, and tools to become leaders in this rapidly growing field.

The new MA program joins the traditional Master of Science in Environmental Sciences (MS) degree program, with specialization options in air quality, environmental health, ecosystems, hazardous waste, water quality, geo-spatial analysis and environmental science education. Bachelor's programs in GES likewise have specializations in general geography, environmental science, environmental studies, and urban studies and planning. For those specifically interested in an educational grounding in GIS, the GES department also offers an undergraduate and graduate Certificate Program. Designed for GES majors and non-majors alike, the intention is to provide participants with a mechanism for demonstrating capabilities in spatial techniques in the social and physical sciences, skills they can take to graduate school or a job. Upon completion of the certificate, students are able to understand basic theoretical underpinnings of geospatial data collection and management, cartography, and spatial analysis, as well as practicing the application of geo-spatial technologies to real-world problems and gaining a basic knowledge of how to operate at least three types of software used for spatial analysis. All these programs promote interaction between faculty members of different departments and colleges of the University of Colorado Denver, campuses of the University of Colorado system, and the public in cutting-edge ways, while training students both inside and out of the classroom.

Facility for Advanced Spatial Technology
When students are in a classroom, the Facility for Advanced Spatial Technology (FAST) Lab is one of the most sophisticated classrooms in the City of Denver. The FAST forms the core of geo-spatial analytical activity at the CU Denver and provides state-of-the-art GIS software for teaching. Amenities of the FAST include a 30-computer teaching classroom, a secondary 18-computer homework/study/group work classroom, student geospatial tutors hired to help students taking GIS classes, remote access to software, and remarkable views of downtown and the mountains beyond. New computers were recently purchased through funds from the CLAS Dean's Office, and are capable of running advanced GIS software. The space fosters all types of innovative teaching, like the 3-D visualization system that Assistant Professor in GES Peter Anthamatten was able to purchase with a CLAS-ACT (College of Liberal Arts and Science Advancing Curricula and Teaching) grant from the CLAS Dean's Office. The system has been used to enrich existing curriculum, starting with GEOG 4081 / 5081: Cartography and Computer Mapping, and has enabled students studying cartography and other geospatial disciplines to utilize the equipment for their own projects.

Greg Matthews, Vector Specialist for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), received his Graduate Certificate in GIS in 2005, and has since been responsible for a broad range of activities including data acquisition, geoprocessing, analysis, planning, cartographic map production, and managing enterprise GIS systems. Since joining the USGS – NGTOC in 2008, Matthews has initiated and managed several national level projects, and says "In my GIS career I've worked at an environmental engineering firm, a town GIS department, and the USGS. I've worked closely with Geological Engineers, Environmental Planners, Hydrological Engineers, Police and Fire Departments, Town Planners, national data stewards, and hundreds of volunteers. I appreciate the broad spectrum of people I've worked with and the many varieties of problem solving I've been a part of. The most rewarding part has been helping people solve real-world problems." For those looking to get into the field Mathews observes, "Besides being good at solving problems and analyzing data, I found some of the most successful people tend to be hard workers, good at collaborating and networking, and out-of-the-box thinkers. It's helpful to bring some of these important life skills into the program and workplace with you." Matthews helped develop these skills working with the dedicated faculty at CU Denver and says, "One of the most valuable lessons I learned was from professor Rafael Moreno, who would encourage students to work through problems with the software and lesson plans that were not accounted for in our instructions. The real-world scenarios helped prepare me to deal with limited instructions and buggy software that are always present in the real world."

The FOSS4G Initiative
What many of the large scale projects that Matthews, and those in jobs like his, have in common is access to expensive licenses for proprietary GIS software. The cost of those licenses can be prohibitively expensive and the regulations put on those using the licenses can be detrimental to productivity and creativity. This is where the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial applications (FOSS4G) initiative at CU Denver comes in. The FOSS4G initiative aims to fulfill a growing demand for education, research and service by citizens, businesses, governments, educators, students, researchers and geospatial working professionals. The FOSS4G lab at CU Denver also aims to be a hub for fostering interactions and cross-disciplinary collaborations between students and faculty. The lab helps facilitate their engagement with public and private organizations and communities in Colorado, other universities in the US, and partners around the world. As of fall, 2014, the CU Denver FOSS4G lab is proudly part of the International Network of ICA-OSGeo Labs, a network of eighty-five FOSS4G labs around the world based in universities, government agencies and private companies.

The basic philosophy and utility of Free and Open Source Software is about liberty, not price. Using Open Source Software means that the program's users have the freedom to run the program for any purpose, access the code to study how it works and change it, and redistribute copies of modified versions of the software. Rafael Moreno-Sanchez, Associate Professor for the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences and member of the Advisory Board for the International Network of ICA-OSGeo Labs, explains this is important to the future of GIS because it lowers the access cost to GIS software, fosters innovation and competition in the geospatial industry, and facilitates the education of a new generation of geospatial software developers. Many myths circulate that intimidate users about FOSS4G programs being not ready or too difficult for end users, but Moreno-Sanchez, and dedicated educators like him, are ready and available to contradict such myths.

In webinars on the topic, Moreno-Sanchez explains basic principles to understand about the future presented by FOSS:

  • The question is no longer if FOSS/FOSS4G are mature or capable, but how to take advantage of their features and development philosophy to deliver the systems and geospatial information demanded by citizens, business, governments, educators and researchers around the world.
  • For almost every geospatial software need and niche there is at least one mature FOSS4G project with a well-documented record of successful application in diverse contexts.
  • FOSS 4G provides healthy competition for private/closed solutions, but also opportunities for mutual benefit and complementarity.

The FOSS4G Lab offers different training modalities to better serve the local, national and international geo-spatial communities, and hopes to continue as an innovator and leader in training and education into the future. A new course in FOSS4G (GEOG 4091: Open Source Software for Geospatial Applications) is being offered for the first time this spring semester on campus, and free access tutorials produced by CU Denver students and faculty can be used for self-paced training locally and around the world. In the near future, the lab will start offering face-to-face workshops, short courses, and training camps in Denver to better serve the professional and university communities in the Front Range of Colorado and beyond. Anyone interested in training in FOSS4G is encouraged to contact Rafael Moreno-Sanchez for more information. Those interested in the new MA Program in Geography and Geo-spatial Science or the MS in Environmental Sciences are encouraged to contact the Graduate Director, Fred Chambers. Anyone who would like to learn more about the GISci Certificate Programs can contact the GIS Certificate Coordinator, Peter Anthamatten.

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