Innovative GIS Course Offers Students a Real World Advantage

Posted: June 18, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

It took quite a bit of doing, but Chaowei (Phil) Yang, research scientist, and David Wong, associate professor, in the School of Computational Sciences (SCS), constructed an award-winning graduate course on Distributed Geographic Information Systems (GIS) last spring that provides students a boost for when they get out in the real world.

“The use of distributed GIS is not new,” says Wong. “But very few universities and programs to my knowledge in the entire United States provide students solid and formal training in understanding this type of system. Students encounter those systems when they finish their education, but they’re not exposed to that kind of development in their education. So they have to learn on the job.”

GIS are systems for collecting, manipulating, analyzing, and displaying geographic data. They require hardware, software, data, and personnel trained in the technology. George Mason offers courses on GIS across many disciplines: some are general and some are very specific, such as a biology course that applies GIS to duck study or a geography class that applies GIS to nature reserve management. The School of Information Technology and Engineering has a course that studies GIS in the context of engineering, and the Office of Continuing and Professional Education offers certificates in applying GIS to crime mapping and to public health.

In distributed GIS, data are available from a variety of sources, and the trick is to be able to collect them and analyze them using a variety of methods, Wong explains.

“These days, we have data that are all over different places. I have data on my desktop, we have data on other servers, we have data on some other mainframe. The data can be used in a similar context, so how do we put the data together? In the old days we would do a local area network, but today we can make use of the Internet. It’s interactive–not just dumping tons of data and numbers on the screen to the user or downloading tons of files, but in fact people can interact with the server, issue queries, do analysis in real time through the Internet while they don’t have the data on the desktop. They have access even though they are miles and miles away. And the result also can be sent to people all over the place.”

Building on Yang’s expertise (his doctoral dissertation was on distributed GIS) and his availability under the VAccess-MAGIC grant that SCS has from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the team cobbled together the resources needed to teach the class. The Department of Geography loaned a computer as a server, and Wong donated one of his as the client. The two applied for and won a grant from the Intergraph Corporation to obtain GeoMedia GIS software, which were used alongside another software package George Mason already owned, ESRI ArcIMS.

“We created a classroom system for students to practice and experiment, so they were not really dealing with an active operational system that people could hack from outside,” Wong explains. “We intended to make it a closed system but still have all the components that distributed GIS require.”

Probably the biggest challenge for the students, Wong says, was getting up to speed on programming skills, since most of the students were master’s candidates in the geography program rather than IT students.

“I think all of them realized that this is the forefront of the technology,” Wong says. “They realized it is very useful to understand the operations behind the scenes, because what they learn is not just hitting a button or pushing a key but learning how the system operates.”

Yang adds that industry has an ongoing shortage of GIS professionals. “According to ESRI Education Relations Manager Dr. Michael Phoenix, companies are looking for 50,000 people, but educational institutions could only provide 4,000 professionals in this field. For most of these jobs they will require distributed GIS experience or the knowledge, so that’s why we created this course,” he says.

Yang and Wong won an award in May from Intergraph’s Best Practices Competition for their innovative use of the GeoMedia software as an example of “groundbreaking geospatial programs in the classroom.”

The course will be offered again next spring as GEOG 590 and CSI 759.

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