UMM Lands $742,000, Three-Year Federal Grant for GIS Technology

MACHIAS – The University of Maine at Machias and its GIS (Geographic Information Systems) laboratory has been awarded a three-year grant worth $742,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program.

Announced earlier this week by UMM President Dr. Cynthia Huggins, the award is among a select group of projects identified nationwide by the ATE’s Division of Undergraduate Education. Just 70 of the 192 projects submitted were funded, according to the National Science Foundation’s Web site.

“We are pleased that UMM has been recognized nationwide for its GIS program to date,” Dr. Huggins said. “This federal funding will further establish UMM as a leader in this growing field.”

Tora Johnson, UMM’s director of the GIS lab and Service Center, prepared the grant proposal in 2007. She believes it is the first funded project in the nation that specifically addresses the GIS needs of small schools and rural institutions.

The plan behind Johnson’s proposal is for GIS technical education “to become more accessible, and more practically applicable for the needs of Maine’s workforce,” Johnson said. “It also expands our capacity to provide GIS across a rural state.”

Johnson’s project involves a state-wide, three-year initiative that brings together three of Maine’s public universities; three of Maine’s community colleges, “and an extended family of other partners statewide and nationally,” she said.

Johnson will serve as the project’s principal investigator. Co-principal investigators will come from five other schools: University of Maine at Augusta, University of Southern Maine, Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield, Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, and Washington County Community College in Calais. At UMM, Lois-Ann Kuntz, associate professor of psychology, will work as the project’s internal evaluator.

UMM students have recent experience in helping prepare GIS maps for many Washington County communities and a handful of land trusts. But now they’ll be included in something much bigger, as Johnson takes the lead in GIS education statewide.

One of grant’s major outcomes – among several -- will be the development of a “virtual statewide GIS department.”

“Here I am, a one-person department, and that’s how most campuses are also (although USM has three people),” Johnson said. “We are finding that we are isolated, and we can’t be all things to all people.

“Building a virtual department will start slowly. We will have annual meetings and workshops, and we will pursue articulation agreements. But we the ultimate goal, because we have so many distance elements in our programs, is that we will all be able to teach each other’s students (statewide).”

Johnson began her GIS work at UMM in Fall 2004 as an adjunct teacher. Mike Kimball and Jeremy Gabrielson were leading the lab until 2006, when Johnson took over as its director. Kimball and Gabrielson had secured the grant that resulted in some significant, real-life work for UMM students, aligning with the Maine Coast Protection Initiative and preparing maps for the Downeast Rivers Land Trust, the Great Auk Land Trust and the Quoddy Regional Land Trust. In Johnson’s program, every student does a practical service project every semester. Their most recent work with Downeast towns was funded by the Washington County Council of Governments.

More and more students arrive on the UMM campus having done GIS work in high school, Johnson said. Others come her way because GIS is required in their major – such as recreation and tourism management, or behavioral sciences and community studies.

Johnson has been involved with the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education initiatives for more than 10 years. While teaching environmental science and technology at Cape Cod Community College in 1997, she started working with GIS. She moved on to the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor before landing at UMM . She attends national conferences, having “engaged in  the national GIS technical education discourse for 10 years.”

She developed her idea for the GIS grant out of a national forum she attended in January 2007. “So much of GIS is about urban planning and storm-water issues,” she said. “And none of that addresses the needs of rural states.

“I have seen small, rural schools struggle to create and maintain GIS labs, trying to run them with adjuncts,” Johnson said. “We need new ways of approaching this.”

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