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New ASU degree trains for innovation in mapping technology

photo of interactive map table
May 06, 2014

A new, cutting-edge geography degree will prepare ASU students for jobs in the growing and dynamic realm of mapping technology development.

The new bachelor’s degree in geographic information science (GIS), available beginning in fall 2014, pairs the practical skill of computer science with conceptual knowledge of geographical problem-solving and spatial thinking. Translation: many students will go on to work on the forefront of mapping, navigation and location-based software design for major companies.

“This is one of the first programs of its kind in the United States,” said Elizabeth Wentz, director of ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “The program offers a solid foundation in both computer science and geography – giving students the understanding and practical skills they’ll need to be able to build new mapping tools from the ground up.”

GIS stands for both “geographic information systems” – software tools that integrate maps with information – and “geographic information science” – the research field that expands the capability of the software. GIS falls into the group of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs that are projected to grow twice as quickly as jobs in other fields, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Similarly, 80 percent of jobs in the next decade will require technical skills, such as those found in the new GIS program.

Graduates of the new GIS program will be well positioned to find high-paying jobs ($58,000-$126,000) at companies like Google, Esri and GPS navigation software development companies. Government agencies, from local to national, also need employees with the unique mix of computer science and geography provided by this program.

“This degree is a wonderful intersection of computer science and geographical analysis and problem-solving,” said Sergio Rey, professor of geography and one of the faculty in the GIS program. “This program will offer students the opportunity to acquire new types of spatial thinking and computational skills that will offer them exciting opportunities coming out of the program.”

The skills that students will build in this program will allow them to create both new methods and new software for mapping, analysis and navigation. For example, a student might develop a new method to discover hotspots of crime – and also create the software that would allow a crime analyst to use the new technique.

A graduate of the program might find themselves in a software development company, implementing new web or mobile mapping applications – or enhancing existing sophisticated desktop mapping software. The new graduate would be able to customize software to meet a client’s needs, whether to help environmental managers model animal migrations, help a community support its local businesses or improve military reconnaissance tools.

“Many schools across the country teach students how to use specialized Geographic Information Systems software – but ASU’s program is one of the very few in the country that offers students the opportunity to learn how to develop the software,” explained Wentz. “At the same time, we have some of the leading spatial scientists in the world at ASU – who also are highly involved in teaching the courses in the new GIS program.”

“ASU offers a lot of opportunities – at ASU, if you can dream it, you can do it,” commented Nathaniel Gaytan, an ASU student who was one of the first to declare the new major.

The Bachelor of Science in GIS program is housed in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, which is ranked 7th in the nation for geography programs by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Students in the new degree program will have opportunities to engage with any of the school’s more than 40 faculty members, who have expertise in methods that range from highly computational to humanistic, and who study and teach about diverse realms of geography and urban planning.

The school’s nationally recognized faculty includes three members of the National Academy of Sciences, a National Science Foundation Young Investigator award winner, two Guggenheim scholars and members of the National Research Council Geographical Sciences Committee. The GIS faculty is internationally renowned for its work developing GIS methods and software, including open-source products GeoDa and PySAL.

To learn more about the new bachelor’s degree in GIS, contact the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at 480-965-7533, or visit the website.