The future of the GEOINT workforce and our national strategic advantage relies on a pipeline of highly qualified STEM professionals
By Corinne Jorgenson, Vice President of Strategy/Eos AI Science; Christine MacKrell, USGIF; and Rachel Zimmerman, CyberPatriot
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is a hot topic among parents and educators and an increasingly important component of workforce development. The future of our workforce and national strategic advantage relies on a pipeline of highly qualified STEM professionals.
A critical element of inspiring students to pursue careers in STEM fields is providing them with an understanding of how STEM concepts learned in school translate to real-world applications and, by extension, careers.
The GEOINT industry is growing, and with it, so too is the demand for talented GEOINT professionals; the future of our tradecraft rests on the shoulders of students in school today. To encourage engagement with a GEOINT career path, experiential educational programs designed for K–12 students maximize opportunities to foster a student’s interest and skills in GEOINT-related disciplines from a young age.
Growth in STEM Disciplines and Need for GEOINT Professionals
The Geospatial Industry Is Growing
The geospatial industry, spanning commercial and defense sectors, is a hotbed of rapid innovation and growth. According to economic trend analysis, the industry is projected to grow from $339 billion in 2018 to $439.2 billion in 2020, a 13.8 percent compound annual growth rate. This growth rate even outpaces the industry’s growth between 2013 and 2017, which was 11.9%. While the U.S. currently leads the geospatial market, economic analysis reveals that the Asia-Pacific region is the fastest growing.
This growth is driven by increased demand for GNSS devices, location data, map content, and geospatial-related solutions and services. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and big data compound this aggressive demand by influencing the cost of acquiring data, the number of users, and speed to intelligence. The market for geospatial imagery analytics, including video analytics and security, climate modeling, and remote sensing, is also rapidly expanding. Experts anticipate a compound growth rate of 30 percent from 2017 to 2024 within this segment.
A significant resultant challenge, already experienced by many organizations within the industry, is a dearth of qualified talent when compared with demand.
The Growing Need for GEOINT-Related STEM Professionals
Across the nation, STEM-related occupations expanded rapidly through the early 2000s, growing by 10.5 percent between 2009 and 2015 and creating 817,260 new jobs. Within STEM, GEOINT-related fields experienced similarly significant growth. The growth rate across STEM fields was much higher than the net growth rate in non-STEM occupations during that same period, which was only around 5.2 percent.
GEOINT-related jobs are expected to continue to grow, consistent with growth in the geospatial industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects a 19 percent increase in traditional GEOINT jobs (cartographers and photogrammetrists) by 2026. Technological innovations in areas like AI and big data for GEOINT are also driving rapid growth in job opportunities for related professionals. In late 2017, LinkedIn listed “machine learning engineer” and “data scientist” as the top two emerging fields in the job market, respectively. According to the BLS, the field of mathematical science, which includes subjects related to big data and data science, is expected to expand 27.9 percent by 2026.
The growth in these GEOINT-related STEM disciplines elevates the need to prepare students to meet the needs of the future workforce.
Best Practices in GEOINT STEM Education
To meet the growing demand for GEOINT professionals, we must prepare the next generation of STEM professionals with the skills and expertise required to continue driving innovation. Several challenges and factors drive the form and scale these educational experiences must take, including diversity of populations, learning styles, student age, and educational readiness.
A key component of preparing students for a GEOINT-related career is teaching creative and analytical problem-solving beyond rote and didactic instruction. According to Kantor, Pricope, and Wang, differentiated teaching styles maximize a student’s opportunities to learn and engage with their STEM education. Another key component of successful STEM education is introducing students to a wide range of disciplines from a young age, before students self-select into career paths. The art of STEM education is understanding a specific student population and responsively employing the most rewarding educational practices and techniques, both in and out of the classroom.
Inspiring STEM education encourages students to explore their curiosity through experiences, experimentation, observation, and conceptualization. Because of its often conceptual nature, a best practice in STEM-related education is experiential and activity-based learning, which allows students to work within their individual learning styles and bridge the gap between theory and practice. In fact, many professional-level programs include field experience to build an individual’s skills and quickly facilitate the move from theory to practice. Especially when teaching massive-scale and conceptual domains related to GEOINT trades, experiential learning helps to link what students learn in the classroom with real-world capabilities.
Cases in GEOINT-Focused Experiential Learning
In recent years, forerunners in GEOINT education have started to design experiential-based learning opportunities for K–12 students, such as STEMulate St. Louis and Mini-Open Innovation Center (OIC) curriculum.
STEMulate St. Louis
At USGIF’s 2018 Tech Showcase West (now the Geospatial Gateway Forum), the Foundation launched STEMulate St. Louis, a K–12 STEM event at Saint Louis University with a GEOINT focus. Geared toward K–12 students as well as their families and teachers in the St. Louis, Mo., area, this free event provided opportunities to learn more about geospatial STEM topics through interactive and exciting activities.
In STEMulate’s inaugural year, sponsors including BAE Systems, Boundless (now Planet), Esri, Harris (now L3 Harris), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the St. Louis Science Center led hands-on demonstrations related to thermal imaging, binary coding, contour and elevation mapping, aerial imagery analysis, and more. USGIF led geographic activities on its Portable Planet, a 35×26-foot floor map designed for students to walk on and engage with geospatial concepts.
Hands-on activities like these are shown to be critical in growing and sustaining interest in STEM subjects among K–12 students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a strong STEM education is one that emphasizes hands-on experience and interaction with STEM professionals, both of which are accomplished by STEMulate St. Louis.
The Mini-Open Innovation Center
In collaboration with USGIF and CyberPatriot, the nonprofit Riverside Research developed an experiential learning curriculum with space-based GEOINT as a unifying context. The curriculum connected STEM concepts with GEOINT-supporting disciplines such as plasma physics, AI and machine learning (ML), radar engineering, and trusted systems (cyber). Using the organization’s own research labs as a model, they connected these ideas with a theme called the “Mini-OIC.” In the activities, students participated in hands-on demonstrations that provided concrete experiences to help them understand abstract concepts and their relationship to GEOINT following modern experiential learning theory.
First, students built a handmade miniature “satellite” from household objects like paper plates and cardboard tubes while learning the basic concepts of space-based GEOINT. Then, the students worked through a series of experiments and instruction, exploring potential applications of AI, optics, plasma, cybersecurity, and radar in relation to the satellite and to GEOINT.
Components of the Mini-OIC curriculum include:
- AI and ML: an introduction to how machines can be trained to recognize and classify movement. In this demonstration, students performed specific dances that were observed by a computer vision algorithm and classified.
- Radar Engineering: an overview of how radar works and visualizes objects. This portion of the curriculum allowed students to use an actual, functioning radar built from a coffee can.
- Plasma Physics: an introduction to the most prevalent state of matter and how its properties might affect satellites in space.
- Trusted Systems: an introduction to cybersecurity and why systems must be protected from cyber threats.
The three organizations offered the curriculum STEM fairs/events in the Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, regions, which are free to attend and enable broad participation. As of 2019, components of the Mini-OIC curriculum have been provided to more than 5,200 students.
What’s Next in GEOINT-Focused Experiential Learning?
Programs like STEMulate and the Mini-OIC are models for GEOINT-focused experiential learning, but alone are not enough. A key next step in embedding GEOINT within STEM and building the tradecraft’s future is further curriculum and program development. GEOINT-related STEM curriculums should foster sustained (rather than episodic) interest in GEOINT subjects among K–12 students.
STEM programs that provide students with hands-on experience are needed to spark interest in students at a young age. A 2012 study conducted by STEMconnector and My College Options showed that of the nearly one million high school freshmen interested in STEM majors and careers, 57.4 percent of those students will lose STEM interest by graduation. More programs that offer experiential learning are needed in order to help students maintain their interest in STEM fields.
Many teachers do not have a background in geospatial or GEOINT disciplines and typically lack the free time to research and implement new educational activities that do not fall strictly within their standards of learning. This gap is where organizations with trade-related subject matter expertise are critical to successfully bringing geospatial concepts to the classroom.
Role of the Tradecraft Community
The responsibility to prepare the future of the GEOINT workforce is incumbent on the community itself. Both within and outside the classroom, partnership among government organizations like NGA, educational nonprofits like USGIF and the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot, and industry representatives like Riverside Research, Esri, Planet, BAE, and L3 Harris is required to connect STEM with trade expertise. The future of the GEOINT workforce is strengthened through collaboration in programs like STEMulate and the Mini-OIC; it is incumbent upon all stakeholders to create, identify, and use these partnerships to train the workforce of tomorrow.
GEOINT professionals have a vital role to play in growing geospatial interest within STEM and education more broadly. They are crucial in the curriculum development process as subject matter experts, and USGIF is utilizing GEOINT professionals from industry as well as academia to develop their lesson plans. However, the tradecraft community is also needed to implement this curriculum in the classroom. Teachers cannot be expected to lead geospatial lessons on their own; Fleming, Janocha, and Machado state: “Collaborating with educational partners is often a matter of expressing an interest in doing so. Educators rarely have a surplus of useful support, and our industry needs to invest in the next-generation talent.” GEOINT professionals will need to step up as community volunteers to work as liaisons between the classroom and industry.
Educational nonprofit organizations are uniquely positioned to create and implement programs aimed at helping students gain and maintain an interest in GEOINT STEM fields.
USGIF is currently developing geospatial curriculum and lesson plans that are hands-on, engaging for students, and manageable for K–12 teachers to implement. Through these plans, USGIF incorporates volunteers from GEOINT professions in the classroom to serve not only as subject matter experts but also as an example of what a career in GEOINT can look like.
Programs like CyberPatriot, the National Youth Cyber Education Program, have demonstrated that their hands-on National Youth Cyber Defense Competition is inspiring students to study STEM fields. The 2018 alumni survey conducted by the program reports that high school students surveyed indicated they will pursue a two- or four-year education program plan to study cybersecurity (20.6 percent), computer science (24.6 percent), or another STEM field (30.3 percent). More than 91 percent of survey respondents indicated their participation in CyberPatriot somewhat (53.6 percent) or significantly (37.7 percent) impacted their career and educational goals.
Outside of the tradecraft community, educational standards organizations set models that can be helpful for fostering curriculum engagement and adoption. The nonprofit Achieve coordinates the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) objectives, which “focus on creating system-wide thinking and modeling lessons intended to facilitate K–12 learning and critical thinking skills.” NGSS has the potential to create a generation of thinkers who will become the adaptable professionals the STEM and GEOINT workforce needs.
Building Our Tradecraft’s Future
The GEOINT Community is rapidly growing and this growth is projected to continue through the next decade. Consistent with this growth, increasing demand for talented GEOINT professionals requires an intentioned focus on building the workforce of tomorrow. It’s critical to establish a pipeline of talent by engaging young students. Experiential learning techniques are demonstrably effective in sustaining interest and facilitating deeper learning and critical problem-solving.
Recently, members of industry have begun collaborating to create GEOINT-specific educational opportunities, and more of the same are needed. It is incumbent upon the entire tradecraft community, including the government, industry, and educational sectors, to create and support these initiatives to position the workforce of tomorrow and sustain our national strategic advantage.
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