GIS graduate students study abroad to advance careers at home

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Brookelynn Constant was about halfway into her 10-year career as a data analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense when she enrolled in a master’s program through Penn State World Campus.

Constant, who always wanted to squeeze graduate school into her busy schedule, took advantage of the online-learning format for the master of geographic information systems (GIS) as a way to elevate her leadership role with the U.S. Defense Department.

When the opportunity to meet fellow classmates while traveling to Europe came up, it was a logical step for someone used to finding ways to achieve her goals.

Constant was one of nine students who recently took part in a Challenges in Global Geospatial Analytics course that takes students to several locations throughout Europe to apply a GIS approach to understanding refugee crises. Students visited France, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands’ University of Twente, which is internationally recognized in GIS, to study the myriad available data on refugees. Their goal was to sift through all the data collected by various nations and organizations to develop a report leaders could use to visualize the issue and advance their decision-making.

The students, split in groups of three, used data sourced from the United Nations. They were asked to illuminate the issues faced by both refugees and affected nations. They spent about four weeks meeting online before traveling together for two weeks and then returned home to finalize their reports.

Fritz Kessler, associate research professor of geography in the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, said each group was given the same data set with no guidance on how to approach the problems or the solutions. Some focused on developing GIS solutions that analyzed which refugee groups have the greatest need, while others created mobile applications to help aid workers in the field track refugee movement along migration corridors.

“We chose refugees because that’s a relevant problem with a tremendous amount of data,” Kessler said. “But we could have just as easily have picked terrorism, food shortages, drought or environmental degradation. The beauty of GIS is it doesn’t really matter what the issue is. What matters is how you apply GIS to the issue.”

The reach of GIS

The applicability is something that drew Paul Millhouser to the course and to the field of GIS. He worked in law for two decades before following his passion for wildlife conservation. In Colorado, he uses GIS to track the mobility of wildlife and chart how manmade endeavors impact animals.

Millhouser is seeking the master’s degree in GIS to advance his skills, and he saw this course as a means to that end. He also looked forward to working with colleagues whom he developed relationships with through online learning. He chose Penn State for GIS because he said it offered a “learning-by-doing” approach.

Through the course, he gained a better appreciation for working with large groups of data sets, where changes in one area could have implications in many other areas. That’s something he experiences in the field, where he’s weighing the needs of society versus the needs of wildlife. Articulating these needs is an area he wants to master.

“There’s a real role for GIS in taking complex groups of data and putting them into a form that just an intelligent layperson can look at and really derive meaning from,” Millhouser said. “Instead of handing that person ten spreadsheets, someone with accomplished GIS skills can hand them one visual so that the problems and solutions become much more clear.” 

Making connections

Tim Ultee, who is a GIS specialist for a New Jersey engineering firm, said the class was an opportunity to learn from his peers.

Because the master’s program is tailored to those who work professionally in the field, he was able to meet others who are using GIS in a wide array of applications. He likes being able to continue to work in the field while studying GIS because he says he’s always learning something in his profession that applies to his studies, or vice versa.

And being around groups of others doing the same opened his eyes to the seemingly endless applications of GIS.

“During this course, I’ve learned a lot from the people I’m working with,” Ultee said. “It’s been a good experience for the two weeks we were together but also the other six weeks of the course when we’re not together but still finding ways to collaborate.”

Beth King, who co-taught the course with Kessler, said peer engagement among professionals is part of the design of courses like this.

“It helps that GIS is in every industry,” said King, assistant teaching professor and assistant program manager for online geospatial education in the Dutton e-Education Institute. “Every major sort of has a target industry but we have the luxury of having GIS used everywhere and having students come to us with that diverse background of skills.”

The future of GIS

Constant, who said making connections with her peers and her professors is something that’s important to her, echoed the strengths of the peer-learning process. That’s something she cherished when attending a smaller school as an undergraduate, and was surprised to still find at World Campus.

Constant said she once saw a master’s degree as a way to become a leader in her field, using her skills to elevate the work of herself and her peers. But she now sees the new courses coming online and the research being done by her educators, and she wants to be a part of it.

That’s something she says that results from joining a field that’s in the infancy of its rapidly growing potential.

“We are at this convergence of all these great developments in technology,” Constant said. There are just so many opportunities to be explored. Having a master’s degree in GIS opens up so many of those opportunities to get involved with artificial or big data or coding or geovisualization. It lets you scratch the surface in a lot of these different areas and dive deeper, if you choose.”

That’s a result of a program both King and Kessler are proud of. 

“It’s really amazing to see the diversity of people who want to be here, literally across every discipline and every socioeconomic background,” Kessler said. “It’s amazing to realize that we created something here that so many people want to be a part of.”

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about the master of GIS degree program.

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Last Updated August 08, 2018