You don’t need a GPS or that disembodied voice coming from your car’s dashboard to tell you that geography has taken a sharp turn toward the high tech in recent years. The burgeoning field of digital mapping has moved well beyond the apps on your iPhone and is revolutionizing everything from marketing to law enforcement and from education to the delivery of public services. The U.S. Department of Labor calls “geospatial technologies” an emerging field and estimates that over the next five years, employers will be seeking some 350,000 workers trained in geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing (RS) and other technologies used to visualize information.
“This is not your grandfather’s geography,” says Rich Schultz, an associate professor in Elmhurst’s geography and geosciences department. “This is an industry that helps decision-makers make informed choices by organizing and visualizing data. It’s an industry that is going to need more and more expertise in the years ahead.”
Schultz is one of 14 partners from 11 institutions in the newly funded National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence, a coalition of education and professional geospatial experts that aims to promote expertise in the field. Funded by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, of which Elmhurst College is a national partnering institution, the center aims to help meet the growing demand for workers in high-tech geographic fields. As an assistant director of the Center, based at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky, Schultz will help build professional networks of faculty in the field as part of an effort to develop a community of practice, develop and disseminate geospatial teaching resources, and establish and promote a “competency model” to codify the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the field.
If your idea of geography still revolves around memorizing state capitals, Schultz would like you to know that the field is in the midst of a dramatic change. Geographers today deploy advanced technologies like GPS and GIS to identify trends, plot logistics, market products, deliver services and even solve crimes. Expertise in such geospatial technologies is highly valued by employers. In government, in telecommunication and transportation, and in the private sector, the job market for workers with geographic and geospatial skills is growing.
In fact, there is currently a worker shortage of qualified professionals with the necessary skill sets. The field is actively seeking individuals with undergraduate certificates and degrees in GIS and geospatial technologies and will continue to need qualified workers well into the future.
To meet the demand for talented workers, the GeoTech Center hopes to expand the number and quality of degree and certificate programs offered at colleges. Its goals include helping colleges develop programs that reach underserved and diverse populations, including military personnel and veterans looking to develop workforce skills. The Center also seeks to recruit more students to the field and promote the various career paths available to them. Later this academic year, the Center plans to host a national geospatial technology competition to attract attention to the field. “One of the most important things the Center will do is open students’ eyes to the many possible career routes,” Schultz said.
Even as maps have become nearly ubiquitous on our screens, new technologies have made it easier for anyone to create maps. For educators, the growing democratization of mapmaking is at once exciting and somewhat problematic. Maps that are inaccurate or that lack nuance can be the basis for faulty decision making and misguided policy. The standards established and promoted by the Center, Schultz said, should call attention to the qualities that distinguish professional mapping and visualization.
“Anyone can create a map, but it takes someone with geographic skills to create a useful and accurate map that sends the intended message,” Schultz remarked.
Elmhurst already offers a full menu of undergraduate and graduate programs to prepare students for success in the field. Undergraduates may choose to major in applied geospatial technologies or pursue a minor in geographic information systems. Every one of 2013’s graduating majors had an attractive job offer in hand before graduation, Schultz said. At the graduate level, Elmhurst’s online GIS Certificate Program attracts working professionals from around the world. In 2014, the College will introduce a new online graduate program in Applied Geospatial Sciences, directed by Schultz, with classes taught by top geospatial experts from around the U.S.
The GeoTech Center is led by an academic all-star team of professors in geography-related fields at colleges and universities across the U.S., including San Diego State University, Washington State University, and Edgecombe Community College of North Carolina. The project leader and principal investigator is Dr. Vincent A. DiNoto of Jefferson Community and Technical College.
“Our involvement in the new center is a great opportunity for students coming to Elmhurst,” Schultz said. “We want to be a leader in the field. That’s why we’re involved on the national level.”