Geography has long been part of the curriculum at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA), but its USGIF-accredited geospatial science program is vastly different than the geography coursework of the past.
Specifically designed to provide cadets a solid education that supports the increasingly significant role of GEOINT in Air Force operations, the development of the geospatial science program and the subsequent USGIF accreditation in January 2011 were in response to pressing needs within the Air Force to better educate future officers on the capabilities of GEOINT, said Lt. Col. Matthew Tracy, director of the program.
“We are working to prepare them so when they go out into the active duty Air Force, they are well versed in some of the analytical skill sets to go out and adequately use and apply geospatial intelligence and knowledge,” Tracy said.
In the early 2000s, USAFA leaders decided to steer the program away from traditional geography toward Air Force geospatial intelligence. While cadets are encouraged to explore various ways to utilize GEOINT, the geospatial sciences program at the Academy emphasizes military application of GIS and remote sensing technologies. Examples of specific projects include battle damage assessment in cities around the world, fire scar analysis, and border control.
“Cadets are extremely excited to learn more about the powerful tools, techniques, and analytical perspectives associated with this emerging eld and how they form the foundation for countless operations across the Department of Defense,” Tracy said. “And it’s exciting that the number of majors enrolled in our geospatial science program has grown significantly since the inception of the GEOINT certificate program.”
Tracy said the program has flourished since achieving USGIF accreditation in 2011. Today, the department has 107 geospatial science majors out of about 4,000 cadets at the academy. This is up from less than 20 majors in 2005. Nearly 50 percent of geospatial science majors are on track to earn USGIF’s GEOINT certificate. Additionally, about 300 cadets each year learn about the geosciences by participating in the Geospatial Information Analysis course to fulfill requirements for other majors.
Steven Gordon, an associate professor in geospatial science, said the program’s culminating capstone asks cadets to plan some sort of mission or military activity involving GEOINT.
Typically, cadets plan a non-combat evacuation operation in which they are able to see the application of what they’re learning at the Academy to jobs they will be performing in the Air Force after graduation. “This brings in that intelligence component that we hadn’t had explicitly prior [in the geography major],” Gordon said.
As part of the Cadet Summer Research Program, Cadet 1st Class Mike Cannioto, who is currently pursuing the certificate for completing a USGIF-accredited program, participated in a hands-on internship at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He spent five weeks working on a project for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, with his applied and theoretical research focused on the use of hyperspectral imaging to determine background radiation levels of different materials in different locations around the world. Additional research and development opportunities at world-class organizations like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency are also available to cadets. According to Tracy, these opportunities set apart the USAFA’s geospatial science program.
“I got to apply all the GIS and remote sensing techniques that I’ve learned here [at the Air Force Academy], both with the imagery analysis and also being able to find open source data to help us achieve our goal,” Cannioto said. “All the techniques that I learned in my classes really applied [on base].”
Tracy said cadets have the option to conduct an independent study project, where they work alongside a faculty member on a geospatial problem of concern, either at the Academy or in the local community. For example, some cadets have worked closely with the Colorado Springs Police Department to apply geospatial analytics to issues such as graffiti and gang affiliations.
Cadet 1st Class Chris Huyan said his biggest takeaway from the Academy’s geospatial science program is how to apply his skill sets.
“It doesn’t matter how intimidating a problem is or where to start because I know I have the framework to tackle that problem,” Huyan said. “I take the critical thinking and analytic skills that I’ve learned and am able to apply them to practically any problem.”