Integrating Disciplines

James Madison University couples geographic science with intelligence analysis


James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., is less than 200 miles away from the nation’s capital. JMU has had a geography program—now called geographic science (GS)—for about 80 years, and in 2007 formed its intelligence analysis (IA) curriculum to prepare students for careers in the Intelligence Community. Both bachelor’s degree programs fall under JMU’s department of integrated science and technology.

“Following 9/11, we asked, ‘What can [JMU] do to help?’” said Dr. Tim Walton, an associate professor in JMU’s intelligence analysis program. “In the years that followed, it was clear that analysts in Washington did not always have effective ways to think about problems. We talked to intelligence agencies and received grants and government backing to offer a program to develop students into more effective intelligence analysts.”

Beginning with the 2016–2017 academic year, JMU’s department of integrated science and technology will combine elements of its GS and IA programs to offer a USGIF GEOINT Certificate. Through USGIF’s Collegiate Accreditation program, colleges and universities around the globe have the opportunity to seek accreditation for their geospatial intelligence programs and award GEOINT certificates to students who meet certain criteria. JMU is the 14th university to achieve USGIF accreditation. To date, nearly 700 students have graduated with USGIF GEOINT Certificates from accredited universities.

Students in James Madison University’s geographic science and intelligence analysis programs worked together to complete an in-class remote sensing assignment. Remote sensing is one of the required courses for students to achieve a USGIF GEOINT Certificate. Photos courtesy of JMU.

“The [USGIF] certificate program ensures students are familiarized with a broad set of technical and critical thinking skills, as well as provided with knowledge relevant to entering and fostering a career in the geospatial intelligence profession,” said Dr. Helmut Kraenzle, a professor of geographic science at JMU. “The interdisciplinary nature of our department and of the GS and IA programs will ensure a cutting-edge education for the students in [JMU’s] USGIF GEOINT Certificate program.”

Whether obtaining a GS or IA degree, students who choose to pursue a GEOINT certificate are required to take courses from both programs, including cartography, spatial thinking and problem solving, remote sensing, an introduction to national security intelligence, and more.

“We have a focus on technology and critical thinking,” Walton said. “From the technology point of view, it’s a big part of the intelligence business now and moving forward. Students need to have a working knowledge of technology if they want to go into that field. Also, there’s a critical thinking side of it by teaching them to come up with a coherent plan to attack a problem.”

Not only are students learning skills necessary for success in the GEOINT Community, they are also learning from experts. Walton spent 24 years as an analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency before becoming a professor, and Kraenzle has taught geographic information science at universities around the world since 1989.

According to Walton, approximately 70 percent of students who graduate with a GS or IA degree secure a job in industry, around 10 percent join the military, and roughly another 10 percent go to work for an intelligence agency.

David Saunders, a JMU graduate who double-majored in GS and IA, said the programs taught him effective problem-solving as well as technical and critical thinking skills that are essential in his career. Saunders is now a geospatial analyst for Leidos working under the U.S. Army Geospatial Center’s Buckeye mission.

“[JMU] taught me the vital skills that have ultimately made me feel confident in the GEOINT field upon graduation,” Saunders said. “I thank my professors, who could not have been any better in providing and guiding me with such a structured, innovative, and integrated education. Without them, many students would not be where they are today in the GEOINT profession.”

Roseanna Torrez, 2022 USGIF Scholarship Recipient

An early introduction to GIS combined with computer science provides a strong foundation for a successful future in GEOINT.

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Danny Oliva, 2022 USGIF Scholarship Recipient

Danny Oliva talks about receiving a USGIF scholarship and his desire to give back to the next generation of GEOINT students.