With the rise of Mapquest, Google Earth and in-vehicle navigation systems, maps have become more popular than ever.
Much more than a means to find your way when lost, today’s maps come with layers of labels to help you find landmarks, roads, businesses, schools and more. Who creates these colorful documents that are chock-full of information? Geographic information system [GIS] employees do.
To showcase their work and explain it to Joe and and Jane Public, the St. Charles County GIS User Group partnered with Lindenwood University on Nov. 17 to host GIS Day. As part of Geography Awareness Week, this year’s theme was “Explore the Power of Parks.”
According to Tara Vansell, adjunct professor at Lindenwood, the GIS User Group used its latitude to try something new. Visitors were issued a GeoInquiry Passport at the door and had the opportunity to engage in a hands-on GIS experience using GIS software. University students were positioned at four GeoInquiry Stations where they helped interested people step through a fourth-grade level geography exercise using the software. The GeoInquiry Stations included Biomes & Ecosystems, Expansion of the U.S., Public Lands and National Parks and Energy Production.
“Geographic information system technology allows us to organize the world around us and see new connections,” Vansell said, explaining why GIS is important in today’s world.
“Any type of data with a location element can be mapped and then layered with other locational data in order to see if there is a relationship,” she explained. “Seasonal allergy cases could be layered with non-native plant species and analyzed, socioeconomic and demographic data can be paired with school achievement numbers, counties and municipalities use the technology for more efficient delivery of systems and services.”
For high school and college students, GIS is a viable career path that blends more skills than just knowing which way is north.
“Using GIS helps students develop higher order/critical thinking skills,” Vansell said. “Answering questions using the technology requires students to pull from their science, mathematics, social studies and language arts knowledge banks. This is not just memorizing states and capitals or coloring pretty maps.”
Zooming out a little more, Vansell pointed out the regional, national and even international GIS connections in our area and available employment opportunities.
“This is a growing field and there is a workforce shortage,” she said. “These skills complement almost every degree or discipline from public history to business to the environmental sciences.
“St. Louis has the National Geospatial Agency; it is essentially our GIS agency for the United States. We have a regional ESRI office in Saint Charles [ESRI is the leading GIS software developer]. Regionally, there are many, many municipalities and government entities using GIS. Surdex is a private mapping company in Chesterfield. There are master’s of GIS programs offered at Saint Louis University and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Washington University is literally mapping Mars.”