Thought Leader: Overcoming Weaknesses in Boundary Surveying Programs

A 1.232Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Measurements Supplanting Location
The surveying student in a two or four-year surveying program has a lot to learn these days. Broadly, the coursework for a licensed land surveying practice environment can be segregated into boundary determination (legal aspects of boundary location and resurveys on the various systems to be encountered in practice, including the U.S. Public Land Survey System (USPLSS)) and measurements, survey design and measurement technologies, the "tech side" of surveying (GPS, scanners, UAS, datums, errors, etc.). Whole new courses have been created in the past 20 years or so… coursework on subjects which didn’t previously exist. Both these broad subject areas are important and should be within the syllabus for educating today’s professional surveyor. However, the rapid expansion of measurement technology has impacted the surveying profession, and not in a wholly positive way.

These aren’t the only areas that might be covered in a surveying or geomatics curriculum. ABET, the accrediting body for surveying education, lists several other emphasis areas within their accreditation criteria for the broad field of surveying and mapping. They include "boundary and/or land surveying, geographic and/or land information systems, photogrammetry, mapping and geodesy, remote sensing, and other related areas." The focus of this article are the majority of existent surveying programs that presume to teach topics to prepare a student for work in a typical licensed land surveying practice.

Unfortunately, courses in these relatively new technologies have been added to curricula, supplanting boundary determination courses. Not too many years ago surveying programs were typically heavy (or well-weighted) in boundary determination courses. These were the "bread and butter" of a surveying program. This is not so true today. The knowledge, interest, emphasis and teaching of boundary determination have waned. For the public and the profession, this is not good; an unintended consequence of technology. Boundary determination has not become less important, it’s that surveying technologies have gradually displaced this body of knowledge. This trend of degradation needs to be reversed. This article explores some aspects of the problem and offers at least a partial cure.

Too Much Science, Not Enough Art
As the body of surveying knowledge has expanded and surveying curricula have expanded, mostly with technology-based courses, they have supplanted the old, traditional, conventional boundary determination courses. I’ve intentionally referred to these courses as "old, traditional and conventional." There’s nothing wrong or old-fashioned about using these words to describe these courses. That’s a good way of describing them. And just because the subject matter is old or traditional doesn’t mean it no longer matters. Technology has supplanted boundary surveying courses, but it has not supplanted the need for them!

Has boundary determination become less important? No. It remains the foundation of our profession, the principal purpose of the professional surveyor and the purpose and focus of licensing laws. With higher land costs and the trend toward litigation to resolve issues, if anything, boundary determination is more important than in the past. The professional surveyor’s opinion as to the location of the boundary is the basis for the profession. The measurement tools (compass and chain; transit and tape; total station; GPS) help bring us to a conclusion as to the boundary determination and then memorialize that location. The measurement tools help us arrive at the result. They are not the result themselves; the boundary location is the result. The focus should not be the measurements; the focus should be the boundary location.

One of the unintended, but bad results of technology in our profession is that surveying curricula have been moving toward expanded offering in measurement techniques, pushing aside boundary location courses. Technology and computers are in vogue and sexy. There’s nothing sexy (at first glance) or exciting about deliberating a boundary location, weighing the evidence, drawing on and applying the legal principles. These days we use and teach too much science and not enough art.

There are a couple of reasons for measurements supplanting boundary determination in surveying education: Measurements and the "tech side" of surveying are easier to teach than boundary determination; more like engineering courses. The methods are well known, textbooks and reference materials are readily available, the result can be calculated and quantified; it is not an opinion. And, teaching how to arrive at the result is universal. It doesn’t vary state to state. The tangent distance of a circular curve is R times the tangent of one-half delta in all states. On a navigable river, the boundary between the upland owner and the state is, well, "it depends." This requires an educational approach that shares little with teaching engineering content.

Legal aspects of boundary location, the USPLSS and resurveys in any system are hard to teach. There are not a lot of good, comprehensive textbooks and reference material available. If one "drills down" to truly state-specific legal aspects and its USPLSS, for most states there will be a void in reference material. (Not true in Arkansas, I am proud to say. Read: "Legal Principles of Boundary Location for Arkansas" and "The U.S. Public Land Survey System for Arkansas," both by myself and Dr. David Knowles.)

Here’s a place for an example of the difference between precision and accuracy. In boundary surveying, GPS produces highly precise results that are not necessarily accurate. The boundary is not in the correct position. In a seminar I give I like to say that thanks to GPS the boundary can be "very precisely in the wrong place."

Here is an example of measurements overcoming art (and this is no exaggeration): At a quarter section corner in the USPLSS you find a bright, shiny yellow plastic cap atop a 5/8" iron pin proudly proclaiming its location and the PS license number of the individual who set it. A few feet away (or perhaps many feet away) is a finely cut stone with a cut cross with an old fencerow over it. Here’s an example of surveying measurement science overcoming measurement art. The surveyor who set the 5/8" iron pin and cap did so at the split between the next nearest adjacent established section corners each side of the quarter corner. Setting the pin at the split is wrong for so many good reasons (enough to be the subject of a future article), but it illustrates some professionals’ fixation on the measurements, the legal principles of boundary location, and the art of boundary location be damned. A wise retracement surveyor once said, "It is sometimes better to leave it alone than to put it where it should be." Actually, we don’t need an aphorism to reach a judgment in this example; case law will support using the stone. (I’m sure the PS who set the 5/8" iron pin with the shiny yellow cap never had a competent legal aspects course, nor a proper mentor.)

The profession needs to "get back to the basics" and reemphasize the importance of teaching the art of boundary determination. Accomplishing that won’t be easy, but there’s a partial cure.

Teaching Boundary Determination
Of all the knowledge areas within the broad spectrum of subjects constituting surveying, the content areas related to boundary determination is quite different from surveying science topics; and the method of teaching the subject is also different. Within "boundary determination" I am including all the legal aspects of boundary location subjects (locating sequence and simultaneous conveyances; construing boundary descriptions; riparian, littoral and seashore boundaries) and resurveys on the U.S. Public Land Survey System (USPLSS). In these extensive subjects one teaches how to form opinions and make judgments based on the survey research, the evidence which surrounds the situation and the applicable statute, case and administrative law (much of which is state-specific). Unlike the other surveying topics (and most of engineering), the topic is not quantifiable, no one equation or mathematical calculation or scientific principle will lead to the correct solution/opinion. These aren’t problem courses. In teaching these courses, and in practice, we are much more akin to lawyers than engineers. We issue opinions like lawyers ("here is the boundary"), not solutions, like engineers. But: Unlike lawyers and their opinions offered to clients, we surveyors monument our opinions, then we proudly draw plats of our opinions, "certify" them, record them for all to see in the public record and then, occasionally, defend our opinion (the survey) in court.

Hence, the professional surveyor’s judgment, the opinion, as to the location of the boundary, the end result, must be supportable and defendable. I started to say "must be correct," but only the courts can ultimately say if the surveyor’s judgment, the application of the knowledge resulting in an opinion is correct. Of course one’s professional reputation in our business is made by delivering the correct, defendable opinion.

Teaching a boundary determination course requires an instructor with an unusual background. The material concerns weighing evidence, making judgments, and applying the law and its principles. This is not a first course in surveying where one applies geometry and trigonometry, teaches measurements and arrives at a single correct answer. One can teach that without having ever done it in the field. Not so boundary determination. That professor must have a broad technical education, must be a licensed Professional Surveyor, and must have several years’ experience in boundary determination. The more plats the person has sealed, the better. Yes, that professor must definitely be a licensed Professional Surveyor. If you are going to teach a subject that requires a license to practice, then those who teach the subject must also be licensed. (State licensing boards should read this and look at their statutes.)

Where are these professionally licensed instructors going to come from? The person I describe sounds like a practitioner who’s decided to enter education, or is retired or semiretired. They’re out there. However, even with that body of available talent there’s a problem. Can they teach? They’ve often never taught and quite likely they’ve never had an education course, and, it shows. The practitioner will probably tend toward talking about the subject, not teaching it. There’s a huge difference. Telling "survey war stories" won’t cut it! This is not continuing education where the audience has some understanding of the subject matter being discussed. The seminar-giver can talk about the subject. The college professor cannot. That person must teach the material. For a 3-credit-hour course, that is approximately 45, 50-minute lectures which progress through the material. This is a daunting task for the PS with no teaching experience.

Perhaps I fret too much about this "being able to teach" aspect. Engineering education seems not to worry about it very much. All you need is your PhD degree. I know not one engineering professor with a PhD who has ever had an education course. To make the situation in engineering education even worse, most PhD’s have no experience in engineering practice (not to mention being PE’s). Because of the issues I’ve outlined with teaching boundary determination topics, we surveyors cannot use engineering education as a model.

We’ve all heard the old adage "If you can’t do it, teach it." Instead, here we have "Because you can do it doesn’t mean you can teach it."

Teaching boundary determination requires a rare hybrid: An experienced, educated PS who can teach. Some institutions will require that person to have at least a BS or MS in surveying or engineering, and for a tenure-track position at an ABET accredited program, that person will probably have to have a PhD degree. How many current surveying educators teaching boundary determination have these qualifications? More importantly, where will these surveying educators come from in the future? It’s a problem, but there’s a partial cure.

The Partial Cure?
A partial cure to the low quality and low quantity of surveying education may be the use of "online" or "blended" or "hybrid" or "shared" delivery methods, all of which have some kind of distance-education component. Most standard, conventional, lecture-type courses can be taught effectively in this manner by those teachers who are willing to learn and teach in this environment, with the added advantage that they can be delivered by surveying professionals who know how to teach, and at a reasonable cost. But, as anyone who has taught such an online course knows, considerable time must be spent developing the course material, the delivery method and then, administering the course in a timely and productive fashion.

Just about any surveying coursework can be delivered using these techniques if enough effort is put into the design, preparation, production and administration of the course. Courses with lab components of either field exercises using surveying equipment, or in a computer lab environment will require special consideration and adaptation. We have much to learn from ABET-accredited schools on what works and doesn’t work with teaching lab components on a distance-learning basis. Simply giving credit for having been employed in a job that involves surveying is not good enough. We have plenty of (negative) anecdotal evidence to put that choice aside. But there are credible methodologies that can work when properly administered.

Legal aspects courses and those concerning the USPLSS will need to be somewhat generic, for no such course can cover all the exigencies, law, methods for each state. But even this gap is not unbridgeable. Each state will need classes to supplement this generic coursework with state-specific course(s). There is plenty of expertise in each state to make such education possible.

Perhaps the profession needs a National Online Surveying College (NOSC) that would draw from surveying educators and experts nationwide to teach truly college-level, accredited, meaningful courses. Such an online college certainly would not replace surveying/geomatics programs around the country (particularly not the large, established ones), but would supplement any program that has need for components in their program that they cannot competently offer from within their ranks of faculty and adjuncts.

In colleges with smaller enrollment in surveying programs, these online courses could be used to flesh out various gaps, or course or instructor inadequacies. These smaller colleges, with limited financial resources, may colist those courses from NOSC to enable comprehensive programs to be delivered locally and keep them from the constant threat of impending failure that many programs suffer.

It seems some of the surveying education shortfalls and deficiencies in teaching boundary determination can be cured with an NOSC. Additionally, the smaller programs would buttress and expand their course offerings if such a "college" were available.

In the 1980’s much energy was expended to create regional surveying programs around the country, waiving out-of-state fees for students in the region. It was a good idea that had some traction, but not enough takeoff. If it had, perhaps surveying education would not be so fractured today, and the profession would have developed into a stronger one. A National Online Surveying College would serve a very similar, needed purpose.

Dick Elgin, PhD, PS, PE is a practitioner (sealed about 15,000 surveys), educator (Adjunct Professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology), author (five books), researcher (the "ASTRO" software products) and veteran (Vietnam). Now semiretired, he works for ArcherElgin Surveying and Engineering in Rolla, Missouri. He rides a Moots bicycle and drives an Alfa Romeo GT 1600 Junior. Current project: A monograph on riparian boundaries.

A 1.232Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE