Students in the Pipeline

A 1.414Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Surveyors don’t need advanced tools to see changes on the horizon for their industry. The general economic slowdown has meant challenging times today, but the future promises increased opportunities. The 2008­2009 edition of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook contained the prediction that "Overall employment of surveyors, cartographers . . . and surveying and mapping technicians is expected to increase by 21 percent from 2006 to 2016, which is much faster than the average for all occupations."

So the question is not whether there will be jobs for surveyors, but how will the need for technologically proficient surveyors and geospatial professionals be met? At one high school in Northern California, two teachers (and a number of committed students) are ready with an answer. Armed with the latest Trimble technology, Piner High School science teachers Kurt Kruger and Kristi Erickson are getting students out of the classroom and into the field to practice science, not just learn about it. And they may help change the face of GIS and surveying in the process.

Kruger and Erickson, science and technology teachers at Piner High School in Santa Rosa, California, started with the simple desire to revamp their curriculum: the two were frustrated with the standards-driven data-dump that was beginning to characterize class work, and they began looking for a way to get their students on their feet actually doing science instead of just sitting in a classroom "listening to teachers talk, reading books, and doing problem sets," says Kruger. With its combination of cutting-edge technology and growing number of field applications, GIS and surveying was a natural solution to the problem.

Taking advantage of some local connections (the school district’s Career Pathways Director, Nancy Miller, is married to Jerry Miller, the local junior college’s coordinator for surveying and geospatial technology), they set out to introduce a new discipline into Piner’s curriculum, the Geospatial Technology Pathway (GTP).

Once the program was approved and scheduled, Kruger and Erickson took part in the TwiST (Teaching with Spatial Technology) program designed by Assistant Professor of Geomatics Tim Kent, LS, from the Oregon Institute of Technology; the program is focused on training teachers to teach geospatial courses in schools. It was their first real exposure to a "GPS, navigation and compasses curriculum," Kruger said. They also learned how to use ESRI’s ArcView GIS Software and came back loaded down with new curriculum ideas and information. After being encouraged by a local survey firm, they also took part in the Trimble Dimensions Users Conference in February 2009, and received more intensive training.

"They both gave us the best opportunities to learn about the technology and industry," said Kruger. "We needed education and they were educational adventures for us."

Now, two years into the first threeyear GTP cycle, Kruger and Erickson are exhausted but exhilarated. Still in "building mode," they are working hard to get the word out and raise enough money for the tech-heavy program. Current inventory includes a Trimble GPS Survey System, Nikon DTM-322 5" Total Stations, Trimble Juno™ ST and Juno SB GPS Handhelds, Trimble GPS Pathfinder® ProXT™ Receivers, Trimble TerraSync™ and Trimble GPS Pathfinder Office Software.

Even at this early stage, the teachers say the program is already a success: from first-year geocaching projects to introduce GPS applications, to the anticipated third-year fieldwork with professional surveyors, Piner’s GTP has already succeeded in getting kids out of the classroom and into the field where they can solve real problems. And the geospatial community is taking notice.

From the beginning, Piner’s program has been a team effort: local professionals like Jerry Miller, professional surveyors, and the Trimble community, have all supported this one-of-a-kind program. Trimble "has been incredible . . . really helpful," says Kruger. Thanks to a California State Specialized Secondary Programs grant, they’ve been able to bring in local pros for clinics. Local Trimble representatives from California Survey and Drafting Supply (CSDS), which donated the Trimble GPS Survey System, have given the teachers training on the use of the technology, and recently spent a day in a local park working with the kids as they learn Trimble TerraSync Software.

Local survey firms including Ray Carlson Ray and Associates, Inc., and Cinquini & Passarino, Inc., are active in the program, offering training sessions, use of their advanced Trimble GNSS surveying equipment and a commitment to provide staff surveyors as mentors for third-year GTP students. The City of Santa Rosa has also supported the program with geospatial data and maps for the program and the Sonoma County GIS Director has helped Kruger and Erickson with the curriculum and any GIS questions that have come up during the year.

"We have a stack of cards in our office from people who have offered to help with the program," said Kruger.

But even with all this professional support, the program would be nothing without the kids.

Long before the program began, Piner kids were included in planning the new pathway, says senior and GTP student Lauren Durling. Durling was invited to sit as a student representative on the board that analyzed the viability of the GTP. Kruger says, "If the kids hadn’t shown enthusiasm for the program from the beginning, we might never have gotten off the ground."

Today, Durling is in her second year as a GTP student, and spends her days mapping the campus and learning the technology. Though she kind of "fell into" this class, Durling has developed a love for maps as a means of solving real-world problems. Classmate Travis Scaife was encouraged to sign up by his dad, who works in underground construction. As a self-described "tech nerd," Scaife says he’s in it for the technology.

Scaife spent a recent day mapping the trees on campus. For Scaife, it was a surprise how easy it was to learn the technology. Initially intimidated, he found it "pretty easy to catch on" with the Trimble devices, he says. Durling was surprised as well–that it was so much fun. "The hands-on stuff is really cool, and the teachers are really cool too," she says. "They don’t follow us around all day. They give us GPS units and say, `Go get your data!’" The GTP students are beginning to get a reputation: Durling has been approached by other departments who want maps of their resources. For example, the PE teacher has asked for a map of the track facilities for analysis of distances.

Building on the experience of mapping campus features, the students will be using the new total stations to fulfill a service project at a local creek. The city can’t afford to do the necessary work to restore the watershed, and Erickson and Kruger are jumping at the chance to show students how math and science solve real-world problems. They’ll use the Nikon units to set accurate boundaries for the project and to create precision maps of the creek . . . all with the goal of solving a real problem for their community. How many class assignments can you say that about?

In the third year of the GTP, students will set up their GPS systems and total stations alongside working professionals, learning from the pros and contributing to working projects. Perhaps the most exciting of these potential projects is
Piner’s own new geospatial science center.

As it stands, Piner’s GTP is already unique in the country; no other high school offers a three-year immersive pathway program like it. But Kruger and Erickson are not ready to sit back yet. They are currently working with the district on designs for a $3-million geospatial science center that will include a new GIS lab, along with a wealth of geospatial/environmental research technology. The teachers expect students to participate in the preliminary site surveys and support licensed surveyors in the early stages of the project.

For Erickson and Kruger, what began as a passion to teach real-world science has become a pathway to careers for their students in a changing and growing field. Armed with the knowledge of traditional surveying and mapping skills, the foundation of any geospatial application, they will have a huge advantage in the workplace no matter what path they pursue. Industry insiders like Miller agree that the future is bright for these students. Whether they enter the workforce with an associate’s degree, or go on to PhD work, "with an education like these kids are getting at Piner, the sky’s the limit."

David Maddalena is a freelance writer based in Northern California.

A 1.414Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE