Geoint programs continue to expand in higher education

Little village in the middle of the countryside seen from above. The road connections show it like a spider web.

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One of the fastest growing segments of the IT industry is geospatial intelligence — along with the geospatial technologies that provide its foundation. That means there are going to be a lot of job openings .

To help address potential workforce shortages, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF), a nonprofit education foundation that promotes building a stronger “geoint” community, has accredited three new university programs as part of its Collegiate Accreditation Program .

The three universities are North Carolina Central University, a historically black college or university (HBCU) in Durham, North Carolina; the University of North Carolina Wilmington, on the state’s southeastern coast; and the University of Maryland, in College Park. They join 14 other universities that have certificate programs in geoint accredited by USGIF.

“Geospatial intelligence” is the analysis and use of geospatial data and information to describe, assess and depict both physical features and geographically oriented activities around the planet. Its application is expanding into such areas as observation of computer networks and their traffic as physical entities.

In short, as the world becomes more connected, there are more and more ways to use technology to figure out what’s going on. The applications are endless and useful to both the private sector and all levels of government.

The accreditation of the three schools really stretches across many different industries, fields of study and student communities. The University of Maryland, for instance, offers a master’s degree program in geoint, with 10 courses required; the certificate program, which is geared toward adult learners, has five required courses, which can be completed in as little as nine months. Students can start in the certificate program and transfer the credit to the master’s program if they choose.

“Another feature [of the certificate program] is flexibility. All the courses are scheduled in the evenings,” said Ruibo Han, director of programs and a professor at UMd. “And we deliver them in a hybrid format, on campus and webcasting them, as well … We have out-of-state students [who can] remotely connect to the classroom.”

Han said the curriculum focuses on cutting edge technology and disciplines, such as analytics, network analysis, mobile and web technologies, and programming. With College Park located within the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, federal civilian, defense, and intelligence agencies, as well as government contractors, are looking for employees with skills in these fields.

Creating opportunities

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) has had a geography department since the 1970s, and geography is a core element of geoint.

“Over the last few years we realized a lot of our graduates were getting hired by intelligence agencies,” Gordana Vlahovic, a professor of earth science at NCCU, told EdScoop. “We applied for and received three grants from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) for training” faculty in the field of geoint, so “we decided to really formalize our accreditation.”

Vlahovic described geography and geoint as “discovery majors.” Minority students don’t get as much exposure to those subjects in high school, she explained, and their parents are concerned about jobs.

“Our graduates have been very successful, getting hired by NGA, CIA, cities, state governments … and it opens up opportunities in other fields, such as transportation,” she said. For instance, the U.S. Department of Transportation is looking for research to be done on how to address the problem of “cell phone zombies” (distracted pedestrians) disregarding vehicles as they enter street intersections.

“We are … perfectly positioned to match STEM education with social sciences,” Vlahovic said. “This is why we’re so excited. This will open up opportunities for majors from other fields, such as history or social sciences … It’s almost like having a minor in geoint; the difference is that the certificate is accredited by USGIF. Having that on their resume makes them more competitive” when they graduate.

To the coast

Wilmington, North Carolina, has been a maritime city since its beginnings in the 1700s. It’s no surprise that the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) has a strong focus on marine and coastal sciences and environmental studies.

USGIF accredited the school to offer a certificate for an undergraduate minor in geospatial technologies and a graduate certificate in geographic sciences with a focus on coastal sciences and sustainability — the first USGIF-accredited institution with an ocean and coastal geoint focus, the foundation noted.

Before UNCW applied for the USGIF accreditation, the university was offering a series of courses in many of the technologies that comprise geospatial information, such as remote sensors, but the opportunity wasn’t there for the students to work on independent studies or conduct research, said Narcisa Pricope, program director of the university’s Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

“Now we provide a glue that brings together all the different technologies we teach,” Pricope said, “where they can synthesize and integrate and apply to all the technologies … We can’t teach them about all the tools, but we can teach them how to think about problems, how to apply the tools.”

‘Rigorous’ process

For all three schools, getting accredited by USGIF was more than simply submitting a list of the courses they offered in the field.

At NCCU, for instance, Rakesh Malhotra, associate professor in the university’s Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences department, led the yearlong process to align current classes with USGIF’s requirements, identify areas that needed shoring up and develop a plan to address those needs.

Pricope said she initiated the USGIF process in the fall of 2017 by sending a formal inquiry to the organization, which sent her the application.

“I had to sell the idea to my colleagues first, then the department, then the dean — up and up and up the ladder — on why this would be important for our university,” she said. Once she had the university’s commitment, she had to match the school’s programs to the standards and guidelines set by USGIF.

“It was a really nice moment for us to stop and look at what we were offering, how it aligned with cutting-edge [technologies],” Pricope said. “We did identify areas where we had to strengthen our program, where to put our resources. That’s what we’ll be working on for the next two years.”

“The USGIF accreditation process is rigorous, including an in-depth internal and external review of an institution’s curricula, faculty expertise, student selection, facilities, administrative support, and engagement with the geospatial community,” said Camelia Kantor, USGIF’s director of academic programs, in a prepared statement. “These three universities began the process nearly a year ago and succeeded through the hard work of the program directors and their teams.

Lindsay Mitchell, the lead education manager for USGIF, told EdScoop there are several more schools currently going through the foundation’s accreditation process.

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