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Mississippi leads way for geospatial workforce training

“Bringing space down to Earth” describes the rapidly growing geospatial industry in the U.S. where tools such as remote sensing from satellites are used to do everything from sighting new cell towers to improving forecasting for hurricanes.

This is a high-tech area where Mississippi not only is competitive, but is leading the nation. A pilot project in Mississippi to incorporate geospatial technology into the public education systems from kindergarten through post-graduate school is serving as the template for the nation. The National Workforce Development Education and Training Initiative (NWDETI) at Stennis Space Center is a program to bring remote sensing education to students to ensure that a trained workforce will be available to support a growing geospatial industry.

Types of professionals who use remote sensing include city and county planners, community development specialists, foresters, farmers, law enforcement officers, transportation workers, meteorologists, medical professionals and others.

“We are on the cutting edge of meeting the needs of this industry from a human capital standpoint,” said Dr. David Powe, acting director of the Earth Science Applications Directorate at Stennis Space Center. “This workforce training program is an outstanding indication of the leadership of Mississippi moving forward and being very proactive addressing the needs of an industry that is here now and expanding rapidly. Mississippi is in a leadership position to impact NASA, Mississippi and the nation with the lessons that have been learned here. We’re very proud for Mississippi.”

Powe said the educational initiative has been a tremendous collaborative effort between private industry, state educational institutions and a host of federal and state agencies with a stake in the issue. State universities with expertise in particular areas using remote sensing tapped to collaborate include: Mississippi State University (MSU), precision farming, forestry, transportation, engineering and computer modeling; the University of Mississippi, law and workforce development; University of Mississippi Medical Center, medical imaging; Jackson State University, meteorology; and the University of Southern Mississippi, oceanography and coastal research.

As a result of the educational initiative, by 2003 every child in Mississippi in grades seven through nine will be able to take courses in remote sensing geospatial applications. Mississippi will be the only state in the country with this type of offering.

In addition, community colleges will provide training or retraining for employees of local businesses and industries using technologies related to geospatial applications. For example, the Mississippi Delta Community College has funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a course of instruction in agricultural precision farming. The program is being developed in cooperation with MSU so community college graduates can continue their education in geospatial applications in agriculture at MSU. Other community colleges in the state have a variety of geospatial programs.

The Mississippi Space Commerce Initiative (MSCI), which has been leading the Mississippi workforce initiative since November 2000, has developed an advanced geospatial workforce training program for Mississippi. NASA Stennis Space Center Office of Education has also been working to develop a national program using the Mississippi model.

“We’re using the Mississippi Model to implement the workforce program on a national basis,” Powe said. “We have had representatives from private industry, academics and government identify the competencies required to fill the identified jobs in the geospacial industry. We’re mapping this on a state-to-state basis so we can address specific needs of industry, government and the requirements of education. The University of Southern Mississippi, Geospatial Workforce Development Center, has developed the first Geospatial Workforce Competency Model in the nation.”

The need for training or retraining workers in the geospatial industry is rapidly growing. The technology involves acquiring and interpreting data about the Earth’s surface from a distance. The information obtained from satellites and aircraft is used in industries such as insurance, banking, real estate, environmental monitoring, forestry and agriculture, and emergency response.

Governmental agencies are one of the biggest users of geospatial technology. NASA has identified 12 national applications that interact with federal agencies: carbon management, energy forecasting, energy competitiveness, aviation safety, homeland security, community growth management, community disaster preparedness, coastal management, biological invasive species, water management and conservation and air quality management.

Private business also has many uses for geospatial technology. Marshall Faintich, vice president of Center Systems Inc., a Virginia-based software provider for imagery analysis, said most businesses in the world rely on geospatial imagery in one way or another. Uses can range from where to put cell towers to finding the source of a power outage.

Faintich said currently most of the people in the geospatial workforce are using GIS (Global Information System) workstations. About 200,000 people worldwide in various industries are estimated to be using GIS. With GIS most of the work is with vectors or line graphics rather than a three-dimensional image. Faintich said vectors are less expensive than imagery, and require less computational speed to process and store information.

But now that the availability of imagery has increased, costs have come down, and the average computational speed of computers has increased dramatically, there is expected to be a shift from GIS to using imagery in addition to or instead of GIS.

“I see a large and growing demand for people who know how to work with imagery,” Faintich said. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of people using imagery in their daily work, and they are going to need training.”

Dr. Randy Parker, a management analyst for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Technology and Information Services, Washington, D.C, said geospatial technologies for data gathering, analysis and evaluation have unlimited potential for almost every sector of employment.

“There are an unbelievable number of uses,” he said. “It is unquestionable that we are the leaders of geospatial applications in the world and in large part due to the satellite infrastructure for data collection and analysis that we have in the U.S.”

For more information about the Office of Education at Stennis call 228-688-3814 or visit the Web site http://wwwedu.ssc.nasa.gov. To find information on this site about the National Workforce Development and Training Initiative (NWDETI) program, choose the “leading” tab and a link to NWDETI will appear. This Web site also provides links to NASA’s GeoGateway and From a Distance Web site, which serve as a clearinghouse for information about GIS, Global positioning Systems (GPS) and remote sensing.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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