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Layered Relevance

Students map their futures with GIS Certificate Program

We live in a time when nearly any information imaginable is at our fingertips. But converting that abundance of raw data into functional, interpretive, multi-layered, and aesthetic maps is a craft all its own. That craft, in a nutshell, is GIS—the familiar acronym for geographic information systems. And students in all disciplines hone that craft through the GIS Certificate Program at Fort Lewis College.

Essentially, GIS deals with geographical coordinates attached to any kind of data. The data can be practically anything—from human demographics, to climate trends, to land use statistics. The system layers several such data sets in a single map to present and analyze various relationships between them.

“Where GIS really impresses is that not only do you have the map, but you also have data underlying that map,” says Scott White, professor of Geosciences and coordinator of Geographic Information Systems. “You can essentially put all that together and start making out stories, scenarios.”

“Where GIS really impresses is that not only do you have the map, but you also have data underlying that map”

As an illustration of maps in action, a recent Radiolab podcast, “Alpha Gal,” discusses researchers attempting to find a correlation between a mysterious regional allergy and… well, any creature or pathogen that might be causing it. The researchers mapped out the instances of the allergy and revealed that the distribution overlapped neatly with the range of the lone star tick, which may in fact play a role in triggering the allergy.

Closer to home, Geology senior Jade Button is conducting a viewshed analysis of the Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico for her GIS independent study.

“Because the National Park Service doesn’t have a whole lot of data available for Aztec Ruins, I’m expanding what they already have,” she explains. “The Park Service could use a viewshed analysis to show what visitors can see from a certain point. It’s good for tourism. Also, they could use it to assess what the native Ancient Puebloans saw, and could use that to determine why they put certain buildings in certain places.”

These applications are but two illustrations of GIS’s versatility. GIS analysts utilize their expertise across nearly every field and discipline. And the realms of applicability are practically limitless. GIS is used by private businesses and government agencies, research institutions and commercial industries alike.

FLC has its own evidence of GIS’s growing demand: the GIS Certificate Program is markedly increasing in enrollment. “The last six years or so, we have seen a notable jump,” White says.

The FLC program is open to both degree-track students and community members seeking a stand-alone GIS Certificate. Consistently, fifteen to twenty percent of the students belong to the latter category. “Sometimes people come to Durango just to do the GIS program, which I find kind of an honor,” White adds.

At FLC, the GIS Certificate Program is a collection of courses that revolve around the computer mapping software. It’s a niche field, for sure, yet because so many disciplines require this sort of geographical understanding, the program welcomes students from all fields.

White says that the four most common majors earning the GIS Certificate at FLC are Environmental Studies, Geology, Biology, and Public Health. He sees a fair number of Anthropology, History, and Engineering students, as well.

“It’s an application you can use in so many different fields,” Button says. “The GIS certificate shows that you can think spatially, and that you can think critically. And you can make really cool visuals on top of that.”

“The GIS certificate shows that you can think spatially,
and that you can think critically.”

While GIS uses cutting-edge data and software, as a process it is nothing new. “It’s been around a long time, since the sixties,” says Jeff Moorehead, who holds a Ph.D. in Biology and is attending FLC to earn his GIS Certificate. “But it just wasn’t quite accessible like it is now. I could have used this like crazy back in the day. I was out there with meter tapes having students measure two-hundred-meter-long transects, and this stuff can all be done on a desktop computer now.”

Moorehead says he priced out many of the online-only GIS certificate options around the country, and in the end, he decided that FLC’s program provided the best value and the greatest opportunity for expanding his career options.

“In my opinion, nothing substitutes for hands-on experience with personable, talented instructors who know what they're doing,” he says. “They make it fun, and you come away with the knowledge of how to operate a pretty high-powered piece of software.”

Many of the GIS students are, to use White’s phrase, self-professed “map geeks.” They love reading maps, developing them, admiring them. A map is no good to anyone if it’s not legible, which is why early courses in the GIS program emphasize cartography, or the aesthetics of making maps.

“Proper cartography is a blend,” Moorehead explains. “In all the schooling I've had, I never read a book on colors, or a chapter on fonts. That's graphic arts. And I'm glad I got some of this stuff in the beginning of GIS. Right up front. How to make good maps. How to balance them, how to make them artistic as well as informative.”

Whether it’s downloading reliable data sets or polishing the final product, the FLC campus is stocked with the gear needed to become a qualified GIS operative. The industry-standard Esri ArcGIS software is installed in every public Windows computer lab campus-wide, White says, and FLC students can get a free version for one year on their own computers.

“We've got color output facility, both in terms of standard printer size and large format poster-size plotters,” he says. “We've got survey-grade GPS units to go around when we're doing outdoor work. And again, there's no software limitations.”

For traditional students and certificate-seekers alike, White says that the GIS Certificate Program typically requires three to four semesters to complete. Upon completion of the program, they receive the certificate and an inscription on their transcript.

With all the development in GIS software and the expansion of the FLC program, there’s one thing has never changed in all White’s years teaching GIS: the availability of work.

“I've been able to tell students since I've been here, since 1999, that there are jobs out there for you,” he says. “Being able to continue to say that has been a big plus in my career here.”

But in the meantime, students who tackle the GIS program embrace the process. “I just fell in love with GIS,” Button says. “It's not just a series of classes that you learn, you test, and then you forget. I really feel confident in my ability to take on a project. That’s the most rewarding thing.”

“It's not just a series of classes that you learn, you test, and then you forget. I really feel confident in my ability to take on a project. That’s the most rewarding thing.”

The Animas River Watershed and Bonita Peak Mining District Analysis Map

Students in the GIS certificate program constructed an online map resource focused on the Animas River watershed and the EPA’s Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

Scroll down to experience the interactive map with layers showing bedrock geology, the steepness of the river’s tributaries, mine locations and their measured pH levels, and land cover classifications.

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