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Location Intelligence: How Delta State trains tomorrow’s workforce

In this episode of Location Intelligence, we discuss how Hexagon partners with Delta State University to prepare students for GEOINT careers.

RM: Hi, and thanks for tuning into Location Intelligence on HxGN Radio, I’m your host Rob Mott. In this episode of our ongoing podcast series about geospatial careers and professional development, I’ll be talking with Mike Lane, Global Education Manager of Hexagon’s Geospatial division and Elliot Ferguson, Vice President of Geospatial at Hexagon US Federal, as they highlight Hexagon’s unique relationship with Delta State University based in Cleveland, Mississippi. Today, we’ll talk about how that partnership actually serves as a model for how industry and academia can work together to better build the future geospatial workforce. Today we’ll also be joined by Talbot Brooks, Delta State’s Director for the Centre for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies, who will speak to the GEOINT, or geospatial intelligence-based, curriculum and about some of the things that Delta State University is doing to prepare students for GEOINT careers. Let’s start with you, Elliot. First, welcome back to the show.

EF: Thanks, Rob for having me.

RM: So in my intro I use the term GEOINT. We hadn’t used that before in this podcast series code, so could you start by just taking a few minutes and explaining exactly what GEOINT is?

EF: Sure. In the US, GEOINT, or geospatial intelligence, is about human activity on earth derived from the exploitation of analysis on imagery and other geospatial information that describes, visually depicts, or assesses physical features in geographically referenced activities on earth. So GEOINT is actually defined in US code and that consists of IMINT, which is image intelligence, and then also other geospatial intelligence. GEOINT has now been adopted more broadly outside of the US DOD and IC space. And it basically encompasses all things GIS-related and deriving those things for intelligence type activities.

RM: All right, great. And one of the organisations that promotes the development of the GEOINT trade craft, of which Hexagon is a strategic partner, is the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, or USGIF. Could you explain a little bit about what that organisation does?

EF: Sure. Yeah, USGIF is a nonprofit educational foundation and they’re dedicated to promoting the geospatial intelligence trade craft specifically. They work to develop a stronger community with GEOINT with government, industry, academia, and other professional organisations. And again, their primary focus is advancing trade craft and accelerating innovation in that space.

RM: All right, great. Now let’s talk with Mike Lane about Hexagon’s partnership with USGIF and the GEOINT community. Hi, Mike, and welcome back.

ML: Thanks.

RM: So, Mike, how has Hexagon, a world leader in the development of geospatial software, partnering with USGIF and the affiliated academic institutions?

ML: Sure, so GEOINT students and the future GEOINT community need to be taught specific skill sets, and to be able to have critical thinking skills to execute specific tasks and to solve problems, and the theory and concepts are what’s really important to learn. So, at Hexagon, we want to ensure that the future GEOINT community is able to use any and all technology that it sees fit, regardless of things like budget. So, we partner with the USGIF to provide software to accredited universities, to use as they see fit and to teach and reinforce GEOINT concepts. Hexagon technology can be used to demonstrate all of the USGIF’s essential body of knowledge. So, things like image analysis, spatial modelling, classification, data management. So, once a student understands the theory, then they can use Hexagon technology to follow workflows to complete these. But, then as well, they need to fully understand how to piece together all of these individual processes together to appropriately solve mission critical issues logically, so, Hexagon software enables them to do that. And when we started this programme, about six of the 14 accredited universities were using Hexagon technology in some capacity, but now I believe every university that is accredited is using Hexagon technology, and we’ve increased the number of seats by about 300. So, this is huge in getting the technology into the hands of the students to learn this technology that they’ll be using in their future careers.

RM: That’s great. It definitely sounds like Hexagon’s providing a valuable resource as evidenced by the increase in the number of universities that are taking advantage of those offerings. All right, now let’s speak with Talbot Brooks about the GEOINT programme at Delta State University. Hi, Talbot. Welcome to the podcast.

TB: Hey, my name’s Talbot and I make maps.

RM: Awesome, that’s why we’ve got you here today. So, first Talbot, could you start by telling us a little bit about the Centre for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies?

TB: Yeah, absolutely. Delta State is a regional university that has specialisations within the Greater Mississippi higher education system. So, we’re home to some pretty unique stuff. GEOINT is one example of a unique programme here at Delta State, but others include commercial aviation. We in fact have our own airport with 22 aeroplanes. We have animation and entertainment industry studies, stuff like that. So, my centre focuses on GEOINT and it’s an independent unit of the division of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics- STEM- at Delta State. And we tend to work in a real interdisciplinary fashion by involving faculty, staff, and students from across campus. This is kind of an incorporation of something that made a massive impression on me as an undergraduate student at RIT, where they did cooperative education, getting in there with other faculty, other students, and playing with businesses. So, we really try, I’ve really tried to mirror that here, and Hexagon is absolutely one of the cornerstones of our approach, as a business partner engaged in our centre that helps our students learn tradecraft firsthand before they get out the door. So, it’s pretty cool because our students then are working on either a certificate or degree programme in GEOINT. And somehow we end up pulling in students from other disciplines that realise, “Well, my job prospects right now in today’s economy might be limited to, ‘Do you want fries with that?'” And so, we get a lot of graphics design and artists type of folks that come in and decide, we want to do a GEOINT certificate. And it’s real funny to watch them get into this and shift gears actually, and go out and get a job in this, because, “You know what? I really like this, and I can always paint in the background and develop that later.” So, Hexagon has played a key role in our cooperative education programme in giving students exposure to what it’s like to work in this industry. And you have to know, it’s an industry that not a lot of people know a whole lot about. So, supplying that workforce, which is our job as a university, is based upon our ability to attract students, and attracting students in today’s competitive landscape, you got to have something on the table to say, “Look, this is a real thing.” And then it’s an obvious step being able to work with Hexagon and some of our other partners to provide on-campus jobs and practical, real world experience. That’s just essential, so, thank you.

RM: Well, what a great model is. You’re really providing opportunities for just exploring this relatively unknown field, opening doors up to students that have, it seems some innate, spatial reasoning skills, artistic skills, so it doesn’t have to just be a hard science focus, and that’s really important. I think that helps to bring such a diverse set of talents into the fields and new perspective and new ways of solving problems. So, Talbot, I want to stay with you and I ask you one more question, and it’s sort of timely given the environment we’re in these days. So, how has Delta State’s strategy of serving non-traditional and remote students in their programme prepared you for the challenges that are faced by schools this year with the significant pivot to remote learning?

TB: Yeah, so, our academic programme, our cooperative programme have very firm roots in distance learning. When we were trying to kick this off, Mr. Phil Chudoba, who’s the Assistant Director of intelligence for the Marine Corps, and he said, “Look, we need to professionalise the joint workforce at the Marine Corps. And I don’t want them just saying, ‘Here’s your 3-foot stack of books, go study up.’ Or studying to take a test.” He says, “That’s not going to get us where we need to go as an organisation. They need to be able to think critically and solve problems, work across software platforms, and have exposure to other professionals in the field. And education, not just training, education then has to become a piece of that.” And he very much saw the difference between the two and said, “So, let’s think of this as kind of a continuum for professional development of our Marines, and we’re going to have an education partner.” And he went around, put a lot of effort into researching who could be our educational partner with the Marine Corps GEOINT. And a lot of universities put their hands up and said, “Yeah, sure. We’ll do this. Give us $100,000a student…” or something ridiculous like that, “… for tuition.” Or, “Yeah, sure. We’ll do that, but online, no, no, no. Sorry, that’s beneath us.” And we’re down here and we’re hungry. This is Mississippi; things are a lot cheaper down here. And we’ve put our hand up and have been doing GEOINT for 10 years. We’ve been on contract with NGA doing production mapping, using Hexagon software. We have military students, we can take tuition assistance, all of that. And he said, “Well, let me come down and visit.” So, he did, and I think he got quite a shock because we’ve put a tremendous academic programme together down here. In fact, he bought a couple of Fighting Okra T-shirts at the bookstore, and has allegedly been seen wearing them at the gym there, and NGA, he’s now the director of [inaudible]wearing them in the gym up there. And so for a very long time, we’ve been delivering distance education, two classes, three classes at a time to active duty military students that are… We have some that come in that are a year out of their basic training. Others are senior staff NCOs looking to retire, so they’re in their 30s. So, we had to make it work across that demographic. And then as a state, a brick-and-mortar state university, we have to deal with the farm kids down here in rural Mississippi who are looking for a degree and a way out, or non-traditional students where the local plant has just closed, and they need to retrain and are willing to relocate. So, COVID popping up is not a whole lot of change. I lecture from my house instead of my office, but the pace, the intensity, the content, the quality, the connections with industry and things that we do, not a whole lot has happened to force us to do it differently, which is good because this is a real smooth-running programme. Now, granted, students are… we’re not giving this away, they’re going to work, it’s hard, but it’s great. We, right now on our NGA direct contract for producing MTM50’s, we just reinstalled remote access and leave the Hexagon software installed at the office and the servers and all of that and run virtual instances, and hey, you know what, we didn’t have to do a darn thing different. Let’s crank right along making sheets, building that tradecraft, and then when you’re done working at home, flip over and listen to your lectures. That’s kind of what we tell students to do.

RM: That’s fantastic. It seems that that model you’ve had in place offered you an additional degree of resiliency and less disruption. And I’m hoping that any of the educators that are listening to this podcast episode will contact you and want to learn a little bit more about how you’ve been making that successful so that they can recreate some of those aspects. So, lastly, Talbot, I’d like to ask you, what kind of feedback are you getting from students about the programme?

TB: Well, I think one of our biggest complaints is often one of our biggest compliments. Because we are a practical applied programme, I also set out to create a faculty of adjuncts, of practitioners and not just academics. And a lot of high flyers in our community put their hand up because they really want to engage the next generation and help shape where our profession goes. So, I’ve got faculty like Dr. Dave Alexander, he is the Chief Geoscientist for DHS, is teaching case studies in GEOINT. Dr. Bruce Molnia from USGS and NGA, he was USGS’ principal scientist, principal geologist, and he’s teaching remote sensing. And Kurt Binversie was the former lead instructor for the Marine Corps imagery schoolhouse. They’re all coming in and teaching things like remote sensing and case studies and what have you. And while they won’t suffer fools, they get it, this isn’t Harvard on the Mississippi down here, they’re not giving stuff away. So, the end result is that we have students that are workforce ready. They’re going to be taught by- and they’ll have the required book learning, theory, that sort of stuff- they’re going to be taught by really good faculty who know what’s important. And then they’re going to stack on top of this, the cooperative education, the working on real-world projects, albeit remotely right now. And I think that provides a very valuable commodity; it’s something that’s really unique. And then we start spreading that knowledge their programme here covers, remote sensing, GIS, AI and machine learning, cartography and geo visualisation, writing, communication skills, to give them a real good running start so, that they can just launch into a career. And in fact, that’s one of the things we try to tell our partners. The students that we’re going to, and are creating, are career-ready. They’re not going to have to spend six months spinning up learning how to do MTM50 production or TM50 production, if that’s what you want to hire them to do. You’re not going to have to send them off to another school to teach them how to do structured analytic techniques, because we’ve incorporated that as part of our curriculum because our faculty who are working in industry and in partnership with that USGIF body of knowledge, I chaired that committee, I’m one of the primary authors on that document, we know what they need to learn, otherwise they don’t get out the other end. And so, we work with them to make sure that all those things are together. It’s really about building that GEOINT skillset and that knowledge base. And we’re always looking for other faculty to come join us, to help share their experiences with our students, especially those that have done really, really well. So, what do you say, Elliot, are you up for teaching cartography next semester? Or Mike, programming for June, it’s going to run pretty soon. We’d love to have more folks from Hexagon on our faculty teach some of this stuff.

RM: Well, that’s pretty awesome Talbot, and it’s definitely clear that this three-way bond between academia, private industry, and government is really important for the sustainment and growth of the GEOINT workforce. It’s great to see that Delta State is readying the workforce, not just through the academic curriculum, but making sure that it’s relevant and a hands-on type of experience. So, Elliott, responding to Talbot’s request to get you on board, and we just want to hear from you, what has Hexagon US Federal gained from that partnership with Delta State?

EF: Yeah, absolutely. No, Talbot, I’m flattered, but I’m a little rusty these days. I’d have to get my chops back on the carto side, but I’d love to do something like that, that’s for sure. But I mean, from a Hexagon US Federal perspective, working with Delta State and Talbot in general has been very rewarding. I think the biggest thing for us is just readying the workforce to come in and sort of hit the ground running, as Talbot stated. A lot of the folks already being familiar with our software, being familiar with the specifications required for our customer set, is super valuable, and I think that’s been great. And moreover, it gives us an opportunity for innovative ideas or thoughts or changes that academia is maybe pushing through the pipeline coming back on the other side. So, instead of having in-person internships or short-term internships, we can actually work with these students in these programmes over yearlong periods or multiyear periods, and really get to understand the synergistic capabilities that we bring to each other. So, it’s been really great and look forward to continuing that.

TB: Hey Mike, can I kind of jump in with something, too? The value, I talked about the value of bringing in folks who are working in industry to help teach in our programme, and I think that’s done something very critical. A lot of academic programmes get one software package for free, and that’s what they teach everybody for all four years they’re in school. By engaging in working with partners like Hexagon, our students get an awareness that, hey, there isn’t just one solution out there. And in fact, what I’ve watched them do now, and it’s rather amazing is, “Hey kids, you can choose any tool you want to solve this problem.” And all of the sudden Hexagon is coming off the shelf more often and more often. And the level of support that we get through folks like Mike, and what have you, they could fire off an email and that that level of mentorship that’s provided is absolutely priceless, right? And it really, really opens students to, “Hey, I’m not just stuck with one solution, there are some other tools. and Hexagon is pretty good.”

RM: Well, I’d have to agree with you. So, let’s actually turn it over to Mike to bring us home here. So, we’d love to hear your kind of response to Talbot’s points and also, have you talk to the value that these types of partnerships bring to Hexagon Geospatial.

ML: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a very important point, Talbot, that there are a lot of different technologies out there and it’s the concepts and the theory that are important, and then the technology is the tool that helps them solve that problem. So, the more tools that they have available at their fingertips, the more they’re able to solve problems in an intelligent way. So, by ensuring that these students have what they need to be able to learn is so important. So, thank you for that. So, Hexagon’s always looking for partnerships, many times with nonprofits, academic organisations, like the USGIF. And the idea of partnering is being creative and exploring ways to benefit both organisations. So, we’ve had very successful partnerships with organisations like the Digital Globe Foundation, when they were offering imagery grants, as well as the Youth Mappers, UNIGIS and other global organisations. And the idea is usually to make the appropriate technology available to these academics and to researchers, but not just providing them with the software and saying good luck As Talbot mentioned, there’s more to it. It’s also providing them the support, the training, and the resources that they need to actually be successful. So, organisations and students are able to have access to this technology, but then Hexagon also gets valuable feedback. We learn about new features or algorithms that we need to have or add into the software, or success stories that help to further our geospatial industry. So, it’s a very symbiotic relationship to have these partnerships and to learn from one another to really advance geospatial and take it a step further.

RM: That’s excellent. Well, and thank you very much Elliot, Mike, and Talbot for your time today. You’ve provided some great perspective on this important relationship between Hexagon, Delta State University and the future GEOINT workforce. So, thanks again and enjoy the rest of your day.

EF: Yeah, thanks, Rob. It’s been great.

ML: Thank you.

TB: Thank you, it’s a lot of fun. Have a great week.

RM: All right, and thank you listeners for tuning into Location Intelligence on HXGN Radio. For more great stories and podcasts, please visit hxgnspotlight.com.