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A Hands-on Approach to Teaching Remote Sensing

Stewart Bruce, who is the GIS Program Coordinator at Washington College in Chestertown, MD, has found that the best way to teach remote sensing is hands on. “I lecture a little bit, then have students turn the computers on and jump in,” said Bruce, who is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Anthropology, and Assistant Director, Center for Environment and Society at Washington College. “Our mission here is to provide experiential learning opportunities for students,” he added.

Bruce has been facilitating students learning how to analyze imagery using software and then applying it to a real-world project since he arrived on the scene at Washington College in 2007. “The first research project a student worked on was the Tanyard Branch Watershed,” said Bruce. According to Bruce, the town of Easton, MD, subcontracted with the College with funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust. “The student used WorldView-2 imagery and did an analysis of the near IR reflectants from a scene taken in March, right before the grass starts growing,” said Bruce. “The grass that had a high near IR reflectant had too much fertilizer on the lawn,” said Bruce. The town then used that information to send marketing info to those specific home owners saying they might want to get soil tests for fertilizer levels because they could save money by using less fertilizer on their lawns.

Bruce has been teaching with ENVI since 2002 when he was with Penn State. “We evaluated both ENVI and ERDAS back then and determined ENVI was the better software because it provided more algorithms and programs to process data,” according to Bruce. “When I got to Washington College, one of the primary determinants to stick with ENVI was the interoperability with the Esri product. The fact that you can access ENVI tools within the ArcGIS interface is really helpful,” he added.

The Washington College GIS Program is what Bruce calls a “full service education provider.” “We teach college courses, but we’ve also designed curriculum for third graders, middle and high school students, and even courses geared toward professional development,” says Bruce. The curriculum they’ve developed is available, free of charge, for anyone to use at Geoworkshops.org. Washington College developed curriculum for Dover Area High School in Dover Pennsylvania and Exelis VIS donated an ENVI lab license to the school’s program. Dover Area High School was awarded the 2013 Academic Achievement Award from the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) using ENVI.

Bruce believes there is no better way for students to learn than having them work with actual researchers on projects. The remote sensing lab at Washington College currently has a partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Students are working on a project looking at Mega Cities that is headed up by a research fellow with the National Intelligence University. “They are studying informal settlements in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Lagos, Nigeria, to understand how these urban environments are changing,” said Bruce. “We’ve been using ENVI and WordView-2 imagery to identify the slums, and then when we get new imagery, we see how they’ve changed,” Bruce added. “This summer we’re doing a bit more complex analysis using the feature extraction tool looking at texture, shape and spectral response to see how closely we can detect the slum developments,” he said.

Also on tap this summer for Bruce and Washington College is their Summer Institute of Geospatial Technology. Running August 4th through 22nd, the Institute will feature workshops on GIS, crime analysis, 3D modeling, ENVI, and LiDAR that are designed for adult professionals looking to sharpen their skills.

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