Closing the Gap between Curriculum and the Professional Realities of the Geospatial Technology Industry 

Geographers participate during a MapGive open mapping event for humanitarian aid. Credit: U.S. Department of State
Credit: MapGive, U.S. Department of State

Jessica Embury and Atsushi Nara 

If you ever started a new job and felt unprepared for the role, you are not alone. According to a recent survey by Cengage, nearly half of recent graduates feel underqualified for entry level jobs. Although the mismatch between curriculum and the needs of professional industry is not confined to the field of geography, it becomes especially important in the context of low student enrollment in US geography programs. Continuing participation in geography programs hinges upon student awareness of viable career prospects. Curricular materials must align with industry requirements to maintain student interest and adequately prepare students for successful integration into the workforce.  Students may be more likely to pursue a geographic education if they understand their career prospects and have the ability to assess the relevance of their developing skillset.  

The Encoding Geography initiative is working to raise student awareness of career prospects and develop curricular materials in alignment with industry needs. Encoding Geography is a collaborative effort between Southern California schools, community colleges, and universities (San Diego State University [SDSU], University of California Riverside, San Diego Mesa College, Sweetwater Union High School District), and supporting stakeholder organizations (the AAG, the National Center for Research in Geography Education, Texas State University, and the California Geographic Alliance). The goal of the initiative is to connect students of all backgrounds with geography and geocomputation through an inclusive curriculum spanning multiple education levels.  

To support Encoding Geography’s goal, researchers at SDSU conducted a survey of 140 professionals working in the geospatial technology industry. Participants answered questions about their demographics, education, current employment, and use of spatial and computational knowledge and skills at work. To supplement the survey’s findings, the research team interviewed geospatial technology professionals and compiled detailed descriptions about career preparation and trajectories, and the knowledge and skills needed during recent work projects.  

Of the 140 survey respondents, 60% identified as male, 37% identified as female, and 3% declined to answer. 76% of the respondents described themselves as White, 8% described themselves as Asian, and 8% either did not identify with any of the options or declined to answer. The remaining 8% of respondents described themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native, Filipino, a combination of choices, or with a self-description. 14% of the respondents are of Hispanic or Latino origin, 83% are not, and 3% declined to answer. Regarding academic degree attainment, 44% have master’s degrees, 37% have bachelor’s degrees, 18% have doctoral degrees, and 1% have an associate’s degree or vocational certificate. During their degree programs, 61% of the respondents studied geography (e.g., human geography, geographic information science, geospatial science) as a major, minor, or special emphasis. 

Survey respondents listed a variety of reasons why they chose to study geography, but many expressed passion for the subject matter, related methods and tools, career prospects, and the geographic community. Interviewed professionals reiterated many of these reasons for choosing a geospatial career. Hsiao-Chen Shih, a data scientist, recognized that “geographic information represents real-world big datasets that can be used to solve real-world problems.” Chaz Olloqui, a GIS specialist, “chose to pursue an education in GIS because [he] was interested in making a positive change in our natural environment.” 

Figure 1. When asked why they chose to study geography over other options, professionals working in the geospatial technology industry expressed passion for geography itself, geographic methods and applications as well as potential job opportunities and connection to the geographic community.
Figure 1. When asked why they chose to study geography over other options, professionals working in the geospatial technology industry expressed passion for geography itself, geographic methods and applications as well as potential job opportunities and connection to the geographic community.

 

When asked to identify the tools that support geographic/spatial thinking at work, survey respondents pointed to geographic information systems (e.g., Esri software, QGIS), python programming, data processing software (e.g., Excel, SQL), statistical and spatial analysis techniques, and domain knowledge.  

Keaton Shennan, a GIS web developer, stressed the importance of programming and database management skills:  

It’s helpful to know a framework and have something that you’ve built, have examples of work that you’ve done, and [be able to] explain what’s happening behind the scenes – that’s pretty critical to getting a job in the field.

 

In contrast, Carmen Leedham, a senior GIS analyst, focused on the value of a flexible mindset and collaborative teamwork: 

Be flexible because a lot of things aren’t going to work and you need a plan B, C, D, and so on. It’s very helpful to know people within your line of work so you can ask questions and be nudged along in the direction you need.

 

Figure 2. Geospatial technology professionals identified geographic information systems, python programming, data processing software, statistical and spatial analysis techniques, and domain knowledge as essential tools for work. 
Figure 2. Geospatial technology professionals identified geographic information systems, python programming, data processing software, statistical and spatial analysis techniques, and domain knowledge as essential tools for work.

 

During the interview series, most of the professionals expressed satisfaction from their work in the geospatial technology industry and felt that they contributed to the greater good. Carmen said, “I like working for an organization that is helping people and making sure that things are working as they should be. It makes me feel good — like harm reduction is occurring.” In a similar vein, Hsiao-Chen stated, “[My] knowledge of remote sensing, GIS, and geocomputation perfectly helps me achieve the goal of moving the world toward a decarbonizing future.” Statements like this demonstrate the applicability of geography to real-world issues and may inspire students to pursue geographic education.  

These early findings clarify career prospects and highlight focus areas for the development of curricular materials. More detailed findings from SDSU’s survey and interview series will be available in an upcoming peer-reviewed journal. 

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