Statewide GIS Education Initiatives

A Collaborative Model for Geospatial Technology Education in a Rural Region

Funded by the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education, 2008 - 2012

University of Maine at Machias is the lead institution in a three-year project begun in 2008 and funded by the National Science Foundation aimed at meeting the growing need for workers skilled in geospatial technologies (GST) in Maine by developing educational programs that are more accessible and applicable to the needs of a rural workforce and increasing the number of students enrolling in courses, receiving two-year degrees and certificates, and pursuing further higher education.

What is spurring this initiative? The geospatial industry has grown rapidly in recent years, revolutionizing many occupations in government, service, and private industry. However, the geospatial revolution has by-passed much of rural America. Part of this “geodigital divide” is due to lack of access to high-speed Internet and computing capacity. Another element is a lack of GST skills among rural workers. Small undergraduate institutions in rural areas also face special challenges in supporting their geospatial programs, often lacking advanced computing resources and sufficient enrollment, so few offer degrees or certificates in the field. Currently one community college in Maine offers GST courses, and though all the state's universities have GST programs, most have trouble recruiting enough students to keep their programs going, in spite of a large and well-documented demand from employers. Workforce studies to date have focused on geospatial occupations such as GIS technician, where urban and suburban workers are in demand, but there are few such jobs in rural areas. Skills in GST are more in demand as part of skill sets in other disciplines. This project, led by the University of Maine at Machias (UMM) with partners in five other colleges and universities and an extended community of GST educators, consists of four initiatives:

Project Initiatives

1. Workforce studies: In collaboration with labor and economics experts, senior personnel will conduct much-needed research on GST in the Maine workforce, focusing specifically on users of GST in non-geospatial fields. These studies will inform curriculum design, marketing, and student advising and serve as a model for such studies in other regions.

2. New models for GST education: Participating schools will work together to develop new collaborative models for GST education among small schools with limited resources, including articulation agreements, mentorships, and collaboration. UMM and Washington County Community College WCCC, will pilot a shared degree program, blending on-line and on-site instructional models to efficiently reach widely dispersed rural audiences. Kennebec Valley Community College will begin a new GIS program and Southern Maine Community College will expand their existing program focusing on marine GST. Through such cooperation among schools, students may choose from multiple career paths and points of entry and gain access to expertise and computing resources typically out of reach.

3. Proactive marketing, recruitment and retention strategies: To inspire potential students and increase enrollment in GST programs, the project will launch a statewide GST competition for high school and undergraduate students. The project will also implement strategies to reach and educate secondary teachers and people already in the workforce about GST. Collaborating schools will develop and implement plans to identify and assist students at high risk of failure to maximize retention.

4. Virtual, statewide GST center: By providing support and a forum for faculty to exchange information, collaborate on curriculum and research, and provide mutual support, the project will increase efficiency, raise capacity, and expand the reach of individual programs. This initiative will also streamline advising and transfers among schools at all levels and revise and update existing curriculum.

Why is this work important?

This project will fill important gaps in understanding of the educational needs of the rural geospatial workforce, particularly the skills needed by ancillary users of GST. It will develop and test new curriculum and instructional methods for technical education that blend the best of distance education and on-site, inquiry-based, service learning, and it will demonstrate new modes of cooperation among institutions of higher education to meet the needs of the rural geospatial workforce nationally.

This project will implement two-year degree and certificate programs with multiple points of entry in widely dispersed areas. The project will tap into the expertise of GIS users in industry and strengthen the GIS education community in Maine by facilitating close collaboration. Through outreach via the National Consortium for Rural Geospatial Innovations in America, the proposed National Geospatial Technology Resource Center and other state and national groups, this project will serve as a model for GIS education in rural regions.

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