The importance of shifting geospatial curricula toward application development
David DiBiase, a member of USGIF’s Academic Advisory Committee and former director of the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State University, recently shared with trajectory his insights on the future of geospatial education. DiBiase is also Esri’s director of education.
What are your thoughts on the perceived shortage of STEM graduates in the U.S.?
What I find is a peculiar paradox. Many employers complain there’s a shortage of qualified, entry-level workers coming out of higher education. But the paradox is that from a graduate’s perspective, there’s a shortage of employment opportunities. Workforce research I’ve seen covering a broad range of industries points out that of employers across the board, particularly in science and technology, only a minority hire recent graduates. They mostly hire people with more experience. But that really puts a squeeze on recent graduates who may not have professional experience. It also points to the single most important thing that educational institutions, businesses, and agencies working together can do, and that is to provide meaningful internship opportunities for every single student in a professional field such as GIS or GEOINT.
What are your suggestions for increasing awareness and encouraging more young people to study geospatial sciences?
One thing that is very effective is [Penn State’s] Geospatial Revolution video series that’s available for free through YouTube. Esri also supports hosting annual GIS Day activities. In 2013, we had over 1,000 registered GIS Day events held worldwide. Energetic and sustained outreach efforts are really necessary. It’s a challenge to unveil this technology area that tends to be invisible to most users—which is ironic given that so many people now routinely make and use maps with geospatial technologies and don’t give it a second thought. Geography has become ordinary but is still a mystery.
What do you think are some of the most essential components of an education in the geospatial sciences?
Even in science and technology fields, employers by and large state that foundational competencies such as communication, the ability to work in teams, and the ability to manage multiple priorities are equally as important as specialized technical skills. But what tends to happen in curricula is an over-emphasis on occupationally specific technologies and tasks, and perhaps a bit of neglect on foundational competencies. It would pay dividends for not only educators, but also students themselves, to consider what are strengths and gaps in curricula and in an individual’s knowledge of the field. That gap analysis can help a student create a roadmap for continuing professional development.
How do you feel online coursework is changing the way people study geospatial sciences?
We’ve long heard that education needs to become a lifelong activity not just a prelude to a career. However, lifelong learning is a difficult thing for adult professionals with full-time jobs and families. High-quality online learning enables education to fit students’ schedules rather than the other way around. Fortunately, we’re in an era where the public isn’t so suspicious of online education. Now, they in fact have high expectations and believe it can be a high-quality experience. The trend toward massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the last couple of years has really spread that sense of trust and high expectations.
What emerging education trends have you noticed recently?
Well, let’s talk about an emerging trend that we’re not seeing. On the one hand, there is a core of traditional mapping professions that are doing quite well, and the Department of Labor estimates back that up. But beyond that core is an innovative new frontier of geospatial application development that is more consumer and business oriented than what the traditional mapping disciplines have been engaged with. The worrisome lack of a trend is that higher education curricula, with very few exceptions, are still addressing the needs of that traditional core, and very few are focused on that innovative frontier. The notion of students learning to become builders of applications rather than just users is something we don’t see very much.
What do you predict for the future of geospatial education?
Geospatial education programs that focus upon the traditional core of mapping disciplines will over time struggle to maintain enrollments and will probably consolidate into fewer and larger programs. Those programs that focus on that innovative frontier of geospatial application development will flourish.