The Political Surveyor: Defining “Geospatial” for Today’s Education and Tomorrow’s Workforce

STEM Classification

Geography and geospatial technologies, which include surveying, are often missing from identified science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) education programs.  The Obama administration’s proposal, “A Blueprint for Reform,” to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replace the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind,” which provides the foundation for federal support for K-12 education in the United States, does not include the words “geography” or “geospatial” or “surveying.”

The U.S. Department of Education publishes the “Classification of Instructional Programs.” It includes “surveying engineering” in group 14, engineering, but classifies geography and cartography (including geographic information science and cartography) as a social science in group 45. While Congress and many states are implementing programs to encourage young people to enter disciplines to obtain a STEM education, students studying geography, GIS, and cartography are ineligible for many grants, scholarships, and tax credits targeted toward STEM majors.

The Department of Homeland Security has a list of STEM programs on its website.  The geospatial profession is listed and in many different ways: geographic information science and cartography, geospatial engineering, geospatial intelligence, laser and optical technology, surveying engineering, surveying, surveying technology, geometrical analysis.  Only surveying is most clearly classified as part of the broad field of engineering.

Workforce Growth

The U.S. Department of Labor identified geospatial technology as one of the top three emerging technologies for the 21st century workforce.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the projected employment demand for licensed professional surveyors over the current decade is 24,200 new jobs, representing a growth rate of 28%.  The demand for geodetic surveyors and photogrammetrists through 2020 is projected to grow at the same rate as surveyors, creating another 30,000 new jobs.  Growth rate projections for geospatial information scientists and geographic information systems technicians is 9%, well below the 14.3% average growth rate forecast by BLS for all occupations.

A study by the licensing board for surveyors in Texas found the average age of a licensed professional surveyor in the state is 55. This trend is similar throughout the United States.

Available Degrees

There are just 65 post-secondary schools that offer surveying/geomatics degrees.  Of these, only 16 are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology (ABET). These 16 schools provide four-year degree programs; there are an additional 14 ABET accredited schools that provide two-year degrees. According to Esri, there are 600 to 700 post-secondary schools in the United States teaching GIS.  There is no national accreditation body for GIS. It is clear the supply of schools in surveying and GIS is not matching the projected demand.

NGAC Working Group

To help meet expected geospatial education and employment needs, the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) established a Geospatial Workforce Development Subcommittee.  It provided recommendations on strategies to facilitate the development, training, and retention of a highly skilled workforce.  It also explored opportunities to integrate with President Obama’s STEM education national priority initiatives.  

As Marvin E. Miller, PLS, RPP, SP, PPS, CP pointed out in this magazine (September 2012), “several key findings by the NGAC subcommittee show just how undefined the geospatial profession is.”  Among his observations:

  • No single definition exists delineating which subject areas are included in STEM education programs.
  • Many college/university programs offer GIS coursework and some offer certificate, undergraduate, and graduate programs.  Most of these programs originate from within geo-graphy departments, although some reside in other disciplines such as information technology or engineering departments.
  • Despite a robust educational environment, there has been little effort and collaboration towards professional development beyond the classroom. Unlike professional organizations that offer certifications (engineering, surveying), the geospatial community does little to formally link education with real-world experience.

The NGAC working group has not recognized some important realities.  It does not discuss requirement for licensure in the NCEES model law and various state laws (which now define a broad array of geospatial activities as the practice of surveying), ABET accreditation, and the Department of Education classification of instructional programs.

What’s Being Done?

The question is, what is being done in STEM education to meet the future demand for surveyors and tomorrow’s professionals in other geospatial disciplines?  What is being done to make certain there are adequate educational programs, particularly degree programs, to meet the 28% growth rate the BLS projects in new jobs for surveyors?  What is being done to assure future home ownership, to layout and build future infrastructure, to help assure our valued property rights by assuring enough young people get educated and licensed as professional surveyors?

A plethora of STEM bills are pending in Congress.  One proposal, H.R. 6429, the STEM Jobs Act, says, ‘‘The term ‘field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics’ means a field included in the Department of Education’s Classification of Instructional Programs taxonomy within the summary groups of computer and information sciences and support services, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and physical sciences.”  Does surveying or geospatial meet this definition?  Apparently, it does not.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently adopted a competency model for employers and individuals entering the geospatial technology field. It places an emphasis on “Science and Engineering,” which includes, “Knowing and applying the principles, rules, and methods of science and engineering to solve problems.”  The model suggests those entering the geospatial field have competency in numerous areas of engineering.

Several universities include geospatial degree programs in their engineering departments and curricula.  For example, the University of Maine offers master’s and doctoral-degree programs in spatial information science and engineering; Ferris State University in Michigan offers, through its College of Engineering Technology, a BS, and AAS, a minor, and a certificate in surveying engineering, as well as a GIS certificate; and the Geospatial Engineering program at Virginia Tech says: “In every area of civil and environmental engineering, automation tools and techniques are being utilized in new and exciting ways. Data collection and processing, visualization, and spatially referenced data are becoming increasingly more important as today’s engineering tools. The geospatial engineering research group recognizes this as a high priority and has focused resources toward helping students learn about these issues,” just to name three.

The U.S. Army classifies the geospatial field as engineering, noting that for a “geospatial engineer” in the Army,  “the skills you learn will help prepare you for a career as an engineer with the government or in the private sector” and fully integrates geospatial engineering with other engineering disciplines.

The Corps of Engineers provides the following definition: “Geospatial Engineering encompasses those tasks that provide geospatial information and services to enhance awareness, understanding, and effective use of the operational environment for commanders and staffs across the range of military operations.”

The purpose of the “geomatics” division within the American Society of Civil Engineers is “to provide leadership, within the engineering profession, for the acquisition and management of spatial data required as part of scientific, administrative, legal, and technical operations for surveying, cartography, photogrammetry, multi-purpose cadastre, remote sensing, and geographic information systems; to foster the development of policy, guidelines and specifications; to encourage the advancement of geomatics education; and to foster the dissemination of information.”

Is geospatial part of engineering? Is it a social science or a hard science?  Is it part of STEM? The community must identify what it is.  How the surveying and geospatial community is classified not only has implications for education, but it affects procurement, labor law, professional liability insurance, taxes, and many other consequences, intended and unintended.  This year, Congress will consider reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which provides federal support for students and education programs at the collegiate level. The community should not pass up the opportunity to use this legislation to define itself.


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