UMaine Machias students learn valuable GIS skills

Posted March 31, 2012, at 10:01 a.m.
Tora Johnson (standing), the GIS Service Center director at the University of Maine at Machias, instructs a student during a class for a UMM Geographic Information Systems course.
Photo courtesy of University of Maine at Machias
Tora Johnson (standing), the GIS Service Center director at the University of Maine at Machias, instructs a student during a class for a UMM Geographic Information Systems course.
By combining several layers of geospatial data from the towns of Machias and East Machias, UMM student Christopher Frederico was able to create the draft Development Suitability map on the left in the GIS Service Center at UMM. The analysis, supported by a grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be modified with community input to help identify areas best suited for development.
Photo courtesy of University of Maine at Machias
By combining several layers of geospatial data from the towns of Machias and East Machias, UMM student Christopher Frederico was able to create the draft Development Suitability map on the left in the GIS Service Center at UMM. The analysis, supported by a grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be modified with community input to help identify areas best suited for development.

MACHIAS — Jobs await students enrolled in the GIS programs at the University of Maine at Machias.

In fact, the job demand is so great, “we would love to have more students in our programs,” said Tora Johnson, GIS Service Center director at UMM. “The labor market is tough everywhere, especially in Maine, but these skills give our graduates an edge. In the current economic market, people with GIS skills on their resumes are out-competing other job seekers.

“Many people in the geospatial industry in Maine will be retiring over the next 10 years and will need to be replaced,” Johnson said.

Geographic information systems (GIS) is a technology found everywhere from a car’s GPS-based onboard navigation system to a laptop’s Google Earth. At UMM, “we teach more than strictly GIS,” Johnson said. “We teach and utilize GIS geospatial technology and geospatial science.”

Geospatial technology and science blend GIS, GPS, and data mapping and analysis, according to Johnson.

“Initially GIS was used almost exclusively in environmental technology and land-use applications,” she said.

But “geospatial technology has been growing exponentially over the last 12-14 years” as government and industry “are really ramping up their use of GIS,” she said. Geospatial technology has expanded into such fields as geospatial intelligence and crime and emergency management.

“There is a growing need for workers. Those fields are recognizing a desperate need for people who understand GIS and how to use it,” Johnson said. “Employment has just taken off. Geospatial technology was recognized six to eight years ago by the Department of Labor as among the top 12 fastest growing groups of occupations.

Growth in GIS-related technology “has been caused by broader accessibility of the tools,” especially at the consumer level, and also by “faster computers, [and] broadband Internet,” Johnson said.

To help prepare students for GIS-related employment, the University of Maine at Machias offers:

• Two GIS degree programs: a bachelor of science in environmental studies with a GIS concentration and a bachelor of science in marine biology or environmental recreation and tourism management with a GIS minor.

• A GIS certificate program designed especially for employees who need to upgrade their job skills. “That is by far the majority of demand for GIS in the workforce. Employers really need these skills,” Johnson said.

“We have been responding to that need by developing programs that are accessible to people who are in the workforce and need to update their skills,” she said. “You don’t need to quit your day job to complete our GIS certificate.”

According to a national survey, more than 50 percent of students enrolled in similar GIS certificate programs have college degrees. “They’re adding to their skill sets,” Johnson said.

• In conjunction with Washington County Community College in Calais, an associate degree in GIS technology.

At the University of Maine at Machias, the GIS Service Center is located in Torrey Hall. Students do not spend all their class time learning theory, however; “we focus on applied learning,” with students working on specific projects that benefit businesses, government agencies, and municipalities, Johnson said.

“Students gain this real-word experience either in class or as paid interns in our GIS Service Center,” she said.

“Our focus is primarily on Washington County, on building mapping-and-planning capacity for the rural communities around us,” Johnson indicated. “We have done work in Hancock County.

“We provide mapping and mapping-analysis services that help municipalities make decisions more effectively and inexpensively,” Johnson said. “We provide our clients with maps and other services that support decision-making, and our students get hands-on experience.”

According to Johnson, GIS students have digitized tax maps in most Down East municipalities. “Tax mapping has been a really important piece of work,” she said.

With GIS-based software, UMM students can “layer different kinds of data” to “create maps that provide municipal officials with a lot of information,” Johnson said. For example, tax maps layered “with natural resource data” can reveal on whose land “critical wetlands or eagle nests” are located, she explained.

“With this information, a town can make plans to protect those resources,” Johnson said. In conjunction with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Washington County Council of Governments, “we have created shoreland zoning maps for many Washington County towns, at a cost of only hundreds [of dollars] per town,” she said.

“This has helped them create their own ordinances and avoid a state-imposed ordinance,” Johnson said.

A few years ago, Johnson and UMM’s GIS students worked with the Hancock County Planning Commission and the Washington County Council of Governments “to develop a Down East Coastal Region Inventory of Scenic Resources,” Johnson said.

The project “combined GIS analysis and fieldwork to understand which places people were really attached to and to rate … which are the important places to conserve,” she said. That inventory is now available at the HCPC and WCCOG Web sites.

“We also have developed in the southern half of Washington County a Down East Regional Conservation Priority Map,” Johnson said. This project “also involved combining mapped information with information from surveys where people were asked to vote for their most important priorities” in terms of natural features that should be preserved.

Students participating in these various projects have “gained invaluable experience” in fieldwork and in analyzing data and creating digitized maps, according to Johnson. That experience translates to “additional skills that are attractive to employers,” she said.

“The students who have GIS training and are graduating from UMM today are getting full-time jobs,” Johnson said. Classes are currently split almost evenly between men and women; “there are more women going in to the field,” she indicated.

“It’s a growing employment field. The University of Maine at Machias is a great place to learn,” Johnson said. “Our students graduate with real-world experience that employers want.”

To learn more about the GIS programs at UMM, log onto http://www.umm.maine.edu/gis-program.html.

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