- News Editor, Allison Opson Clement
Coming this fall: geographic information science program and assistant professor
By Allison Opson Clement|News Editor
Western now offers a program in geographic information science (GIS), the study of geographic information systems. Students can enroll for the 2014 fall term for either a minor or a certificate accreditation.
As part of the introduction of the program, Dr. Melinda Shimizu has been hired as an assistant professor of GIS at Western.
Dr. Stephen Taylor said he and the other program advisor, Dr. Mark M. Van Steeter, are working to get classes in place, as registration takes place in two weeks.
“It takes awhile to get things off the ground,” said Taylor of the efforts to launch the program. “We’ll see where it goes.”
Although the program is being marketed primarily to students in fields such as natural science, Taylor considers it widely applicable to a variety of disciplines.
“It’s marketable – it’s one of the fastest-growing fields out there,” said Taylor. “It’s a very good tool for employment.”
“A student who earns this minor or certificate could certainly go on to be successful as a GIS scientist as I did, but they could just as easily go into industry, government, or business,” said Shimizu. She said the program provides students with a solid foundation in GIS, but one that can be taken and applied to a wide variety of areas.
The certificate program was approved by the Oregon University System (OUS), and the minor was approved by Western’s faculty senate.
“The Department of Geography has worked closely with the Department of Earth Science over the last several years regarding GIS courses,” said Van Steeter. “We worked together to point out to the administration how important this program is for the future of WOU and our students.”
The new minor will be housed in the Department of Earth and Physical Sciences division of Western, in the Natural Science building on campus.
“We expect students from a variety of disciplines to take part in the GIS minor, but initially it will likely be primarily students from geography and earth science until the reputation builds,” said Van Steeter. “This is a very marketable skill for both geography and earth science students. GIS is an important part of almost any discipline these days.”
Geographic information science (GIS: GIScience) is the study of geographic information systems (GIS: GISystems), the technology of location and information. This includes the use of co-spatial technology (such as that used in GPS, Google Earth, etc.) and positional systems to identify a specific location, and connects all of that with information.
“That’s essentially what your phone’s doing when you’re driving around,” Taylor said of the geospatial information systems that provide near-real-time data about the user’s surroundings.
Outside the classroom, remote sensing such as aerial photography and satellite imagery is used by geologists and earth scientists, for areas like earth management and hazard management.
“The GIS minor will give students a solid grounding in GIS science, tools and theory,” said Van Steeter.
“It’s an interdisciplinary tool,” said Taylor of GISystems, appropriate for students of geography, computer science, criminal justice and many other fields in a “wide variety of applications.”
According to Shimizu, GIS students can expect a hands-on approach with instruction in the computer lab where they will learn to use software like ArcGIS, Adobe Creative Suite and IDRISI.
“The new GIS minor/certificate program is, in my opinion, a very exciting new opportunity for WOU students: having experience with spatial technologies and understanding the science behind them is absolutely a key skill for many jobs today,” said Shimizu. “I personally can attest that having a GIS certificate on my resume helped me get an interview and the job at a consulting firm in Phoenix. It is definitely an in-demand skill set, especially for jobs in research, resource management, government, criminal justice, consulting and business.”
Since 1999, only one class on the subject has been offered at Western, according to Taylor. This one course has now been expanded to a four-course sequence.
Part of the expansion includes the possibility for more example applications, said Taylor. Although they won’t be utilizing actual satellites, they will manipulate images, as well as working on programming and other computer tools, which will include hydrologic modeling and three-dimensional earth modeling.
Western uses Esri ArcGIS, “a platform for designing and mapping solutions through the application of geographic knowledge” as defined by Esri’s website. The mapping program has been available to Western since 2000 as part of a lease agreement with OUS, as other schools employ it for their own, more extensive geographic information science programs.
Other web-based applications may be used in the future, said Taylor, depending on how the minor develops.
The certificate program is essentially the same thing as the minor. The only real difference, according to Taylor, is that although it is not necessary to already have a bachelor’s degree, typically those who work towards certificate options for skills training tend to be post-baccalaureate.
“This would be a good starting point for students who want to go on to more advanced studies,” said Taylor. “It’s a good gateway.”
Shimizu said that her background in both geology and GIS will bring a blended perspective that is especially useful in developing a cross-disciplinary program like the GIS minor/certificate.
“I truly enjoy sharing this technology with students and helping them learn about the wide range of possibilities available with GIS and remote sensing,” said Shimizu.
Shimizu hopes to develop the program and bring in courses Western does not currently offer, as well as involve students in geospatial research.
Shimizu will start in September 2014 as the new assistant professor of geographic information science. She is currently finishing her PhD from Arizona State University (ASU), and earned her GIS Certificate from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at ASU. Taylor said that his role in the program will change to one of mentoring her and helping her get the GIS minor up and running.
“Coming from Phoenix, I am certainly excited to leave the brown desert and scorching summer for the pleasant Willamette Valley and trees,” said Shimizu. “I am also looking forward to starting the next step in my career and becoming a part of the WOU community.”
“We basically just need to get the word out and students will quickly be drawn to the GIS minor,” said Van Steeter.
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