Research Experiences in Geospatial Science and Technology Project at the Bronx Community College, PURM 3.1

Karolyn Jimenez, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, U.S.
Kaba Aboubakar, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, U.S.
Eric Nez, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, U.S.
Leroy Brown, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, U.S.
Mohammad Rahman, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, U.S.
Sunil Bhaskaran, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, U.S.

Geospatial technology consists of three key areas – Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing (RS), and Global Positioning System (GPS). Geospatial technologies are cutting-edge research areas that present numerous career opportunities to undergraduates and graduates enrolled in American universities. In a statement released by the Department of Labor, geospatial technology is a high growth industry, but also one that faces a critical shortage in skilled labor.

In geospatial technology, different types of geographic data are analyzed, classified, and manipulated for developing end-user spatial solutions (Lam et al., 2009; Bhaskaran et al., 2010). At an institutional level, geospatial technology has the potential to enhance learning by creating a student-centered inquiry environment, creating links between policy and science to help students solve real-world problems, enhancing interdisciplinary learning, enabling students to use the same tools as professionals, and being accessible to a wide range of learners (National Research Council [NRC], 2006). These functions of GIS in education meet the NRC’s recommendations for effective learning, which include creating an environment that is learner-, knowledge-, assessment-, and community-centered (NRC, 1999). In addition, GIS has shown improvement in students’ attitude towards learning by increasing the relevance of the subject to the student (West, 2003; Bhaskaran, 2004). As the industry grows exponentially, there are now different types of industry-standard software for users to learn geospatial technology and master it.

At BCC-CUNY, a two-year college that is a part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, there are no formal courses in geospatial technology. Therefore, any opportunity to learn this technology or gain hands-on skills must come by working under a faculty member on a research project.From our observation during the research, we have found that having faculty providing research opportunities to undergraduates is critical for many reasons, such as (1) to get exposure to emerging technologies (2) to improve analytical thinking and critical decision making (3) to visualize spatial data which in turn makes in-class learning more comprehensible, exciting, and meaningful (4) to develop time-management and teamwork skills,and (5) to acquire additional information for making career choices.

Studies in the past have highlighted the importance of introducing research opportunities to undergraduates and the multiple benefits in the teaching and learning process. A study conducted by Ishiyama (2002) found that “Students who participated in collaborative undergraduate research with faculty early on reported significant gains in the ability to (1) think analytically and logically; (2) put ideas together; and (3) learn on their own” (p.1). Further, these gains were greater than those reported by students who did not participate in collaborative research with a faculty member. Other research from around the world has demonstrated that student research projects improve reading, analytical, and visualization skills (Falk &Nothen, 2004; English & Feaster, 2003a; Loudon, 2000; Coulter, 2000; Schleicher & Schrettenbrunner, 2004; Simmons et al., 2008).

Geospatial technology is an emerging field of study in the U.S. and has been billed as a national priority by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). BCC is in the process of starting a geospatial center for training students in geospatial technology and its applications to both Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) and non-STEM disciplines. Since 2010, over 1,000 undergraduate students at BCC were exposed to geospatial technology and its applications and given hands-on training using industry standard software. This was done by carefully infusing geospatial exercises in the environmental technology course syllabus. Students were given the opportunity to learn an emerging technology for the first time at BCC!

In the summer of 2011, eight students participated in two separate geospatial projects. These projects were mentored by Dr. Sunil Bhaskaran who has over 16 years of teaching and research experience in geospatial technology. The aim of these projects was (1) to develop a strategic marketing plan for the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) by helping them determine which area of the city is best for advertising and marketing their courses and program and (2) to create an archive of geospatial data over New York City for analysis and research. Our teams of eight students were selected on the basis of two main criteria (1) individual grade point average (GPA) and (2) interview by a faculty mentor to test the desire, curiosity, and interest levels of students to participate in the research projects. In the following sections of the paper we describe 2 projects in detail. The main purpose of the project 1 described below was to develop a strategic marketing plan for recruiting new students to the ASAP program at BCC. The geospatial technique that we used in the analysis was ‘Geocoding’.

Project 1: Developing a Strategic Marketing Plan for ASAP by Using Geocoding Techniques
ASAP program draws students from different parts of New York City. The project is growing into a major initiative at BCC. However, there is a need to develop informed spatial decisions. A model to map the location of students who had enrolled in ASAP is critical to get an idea about their spatial distribution. GIS techniques may be used to create push pin maps that can be useful in developing effective marketing strategies targeted at increasing student retention rates. Geocoding tools, as a component of GIS, are critical for conducting these analyses. Geocoding is a technique by which raw data is geographically referenced based on an existing database that has geographic coordinates. Geocoding has been successfully used in finding ways of mapping data gathered across the country and in different types of applications including education, pediatrics, urban planning, and environmental management (Graham & Shackelford, 1991; Whitehead et al., 2007; Bhaskaran et al., 2004). The study site for this project was New York City.

Data and Study Approach
We followed several steps to approach this project. The first step was to organize the geographic data that was provided to us by the ASAP office at BCC. This is important prior to innovating geocoding databases. We sorted the addresses by zip code and graphed them to get an understanding of the spatial distribution of geographic data by zip codes. We used street files as reference data to which the raw data (consisting of addresses) was geocoded. The next step in our approach was to create an address locator file that could be used in the geocoding process. An address locator is a file that consists of all the information needed from the reference data on one address to geocode. Once the address locators are done, there is no need for reference data. We started the geocoding process to create the push pin map consisting of all addresses related to the ASAP candidates’ locations. One final step before we created the maps was to run an accuracy report. This was done using the address rematch function, which makes sure that all the addresses are correctly located on the map. The steps involved in geocoding are presented in Table 1.

BCC1To summarize, we used advanced geocoding methods to map the locations of ASAP students enrolled in environmental science courses at BCC. We used different address locators and rematching functions to create accurate push pin maps of these BCC students. These maps were provided to the ASAP office for further investigations. By using this map, the ASAP office can now clearly determine their strategies to market by focusing on those locations where the student population was less. The results of the project were showcased by us at the annual BCC science fair.

BCC Science Fair
BCC3The BCC science fair is an annual event which provides a platform for showcasing faculty-mentored student projects in the science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This event is held every year in the month of April at BCC. All participants are required to make an oral presentation before a panel consisting of faculty from different departments. All presenters are required to go through an initial step where they are assessed for their level of preparedness and ability to deliver presentation. This involved meeting and presenting before a panel of faculty and students and soliciting their feedback or comments for refining the presentation. We found that this step enhanced the quality of our posters at the actual science fair. We successfully presented our projects at the science fair and were awarded with certificates, cash prizes, and third place in the overall competition (Figure 1). Our preparation for the science fair included many steps over a period of time. We were trained in operating industry-standard geospatial software by a set of customized lab exercises that were BCC4offered in superior computer labs specifically set up for the project by Dr. Sunil Bhaskaran (faculty mentor). Throughout the learning process, we were exposed to research methods, data analysis, presentation techniques, scholarly writing, preparing reports, designing power point presentations, and designing A0 size posters (Figure 2).


Project 2: Creating a Geospatial Data Archive
Geospatial research is driven by data that may be acquired from different sources. A major source of geospatial data is satellite data. The main objective of this project was to create a data archive from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) of different types of satellite imagery over New York City. The data archive would then be used at BCC for teaching and conducting multidisciplinary research.

Different types of satellite imagery are available for educational research from the United States USGS. These data sets may be downloaded from the USGS online data repository. The downloading process is facilitated by different customized software search engines that are available at the USGS website. One such software is Global Visualization Viewer (Glovis). Glovis enables users to search, select, and order multiple datasets from the USGS data archives. The USGS also provides details on different types of satellite imagery. This information is embedded in all the different search engines at USGS, including Glovis. For the first time user there is a tutorial which describes the different functionalities of Glovis. The USGS site also provides fundamental information and resolution characteristics about the different geospatial data sets.

We learned about the spatial and spectral resolutions of different types of satellite imagery and ordered them using the Glovis tool. The turnaround time for the delivery of the images was usually 2-3 weeks, therefore we had to plan ahead of time. Once the orders were placed, we received a link to the specific data that included the metadata also, which was then stored systematically into different folders. The metadata consists of information related to the resolution, map model, projection, and datum (see Figure 2).

BCC5A detailed report describing the methodology of the project and procedures involved in creating the database was submitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Center for Remote Sensing Excellence (NOAA-CREST) as well as to the National Science Foundation (NSF). NOAA-CREST is a collaborative institute consisting of different colleges and universities that fosters education and research in remote sensing. BCC is a part of the NOAA-CREST institute, and many faculty members are affiliated to NOAA-CREST institute also. We successfully completed all the above activities by careful planning, teamwork, and communication skills. For example, different datasets were ordered by different project members and the consolidation of all these datasets into one archive demanded high level of communication between them.

We started working on the above projects in March 2011. Due to Dr. Bhaskaran’s in-class information sessions, presentations, and hands-on geospatial workshops, we learned to operate different industry-standard geospatial software. We worked in a team environment and often helped each other in the projects. We attended several training sessions and seminars that were delivered by Dr. Bhaskaran and other faculty at BCC. These training sessions were very descriptive and easy to understand. Dr. Bhaskaran and other experienced student tutors also gave us a series of lectures during the semester and trained us in undertaking all tasks in the projects systematically. In summary, there were several benefits from the research participation, which are described in the next few paragraphs.

Role of Faculty Mentor
Faculty mentor Dr. Sunil Bhaskaran provided guidance throughout the project and trained students in developing technical and critical thinking skills in geospatial technology as well as its applications. Dr. Bhaskaran worked with all of us on a flexible basis and made the subject matter very interesting. The role of faculty mentor in undergraduate research projects is critical as we describe Dr. Bhaskaran’s specific contributions below.

Hands-on Training in Industry Standard Geospatial Software
We were introduced to geospatial technology for the first time when we attended information sessions that were organized as a part of the project. These sessions were conducted by Dr. Bhaskaran in the college. These sessions gave us an excellent introduction and ideas about geospatial technology and its applications. Learning to operate geospatial software such as ArcGIS, ENVI-IDL is critical to analyze and model wide array of geographical data sets. Dr. Bhaskaran developed several tutorials and hands-on-training materials over the semesters. The materials consisted mainly of exercises and tutorials which were used by all of us particularly in the analysis and modeling tasks. Since the content was technical and vast, it took us well over a semester to learn important functions and commands of the software. Apart from the above hands-on training, Dr. Bhaskaran also trained us in understanding of different satellite data specs and resolutions.

Presentation and Writing Skills with Motivational Guidance
A study conducted by Doug Downs and ZuZu Feder (2010) describes the different ways a student sees “writing”. The study highlighted the fact that some students in undergraduate programs haven’t yet known the importance of writing. When asked question about what ‘Writing’ is they responded …. “Writing is like hiking,” “Writing is a journey,” and “Writing is like a sandwich”. It is therefore important for students to make use of research opportunities they get from the faculty mentors to help improve their writing and thinking skills. Writing scholarly articles requires special skills that were imparted to us by Dr. Bhaskaran. We started off by writing drafts that were reviewed and commented upon by Dr. Bhaskaran at regular intervals. We then used those comments for improving the manuscripts until they were ready to be submitted and presented to journals. Although this was a difficult and time-consuming process, it introduced us to the challenging world of writing scholarly articles. Project results were published in peer-reviewed journals and proceedings of conferences that were authored by us and Dr. Bhaskaran.

Working with USGS
The project with USGS resources involved making many enquiries and follow-up questions by emails had to be sent to USGS staff during the course of the project. Dr. Bhaskaran encouraged us to maintain regular communication with the USGS help desk and seek clarifications about data acquisition or any delays in the delivery of imagery from USGS. Enquiries had to be specific and precise and supported with the right documentation. For example, if we were enquiring about the delivery of missing images, we were instructed to be specific and provide information related to the scene type, data of exposure, bands in the image, or missing information. By visiting the USGS website and accessing online information, all participants were able to learn important facts about USGS and their research.

Challenges Faced during the Projects
We encountered several challenges in the research project which are described below:

Time management: We had busy schedules since we were enrolled in different courses, which were offered at different hours. Additionally, some of us had families to look after, which further compounded problems in working as a team and in project coordination and management. We tried to resolve these challenges by developing strict timelines and planning our schedules in advance. On some occasions we had to resort to a different meeting mode e.g. Skype.

Resource constraints: We had only three desktop computers for eight of us, and the computers were located in Dr. Bhaskaran’s office. The space in the office was also limited which put tremendous pressure on us to complete tasks on time. We overcame this situation by drafting a plan for managing the limited resources and time. We prepared a weekly timetable with our respective class hours and available windows of time to Dr. Bhaskaran. Dr. Bhaskaran provided special access to his office through the department which allowed us to manage our limited resources effectively.

Technical issues: We found that geospatial technology is a vast topic with many technical words that we had never come across before. Therefore, it was challenging to understand all of these terms initially. We overcame these issues by attending and learning about these terms at multiple information sessions conducted by Dr. Bhaskaran. The information sessions helped us connect to the technology effectively and assisted us on completing tasks on time.

We also encountered some challenges particularly in getting timely link data’s from USGS. The USGS attributed these delays to a system outage. The implications of this outage was affecting the due date and timely completion of the project mainly because all the data requests had to be resent, which was a very time consuming process. We managed time by working with whatever data was already in-house while we waited for the new data links for download.

Research training is a long process since there are many elements of research that must be learned and developed before qualifying to be a good researcher. For example, understanding of research methodology, acquiring hands-on skills with industry standard software/equipment, planning field work, analyzing different types of data, modeling, and presentation of research outputs are all important elements of research that can only be acquired and developed over a period of time.

Students interested in research must begin at least at the undergraduate level so that it can be further developed at the two-year and four-year colleges before undertaking research at an internship/career level or for advanced studies. Undergraduate research may involve a high level of interaction with faculty, equipment, and software. This provides additional opportunities for undergraduates to learn basic to advanced concepts in both STEM and Non-STEM disciplines. Out of class research activity may also benefit learning in the class-room because it enhances knowledge of basic concepts in a practical setting.

However, there are many challenges in the introduction of research at the undergraduate level due to limited availability of time, overlapping priorities, and in general a busy lifestyle. There is a need to develop an innovative model which can cater to undergraduates with the above characteristics and creation of an environment that facilitates active research participation at the undergraduate level as we have successfully demonstrated in this case study. We succeeded in participating and completing projects on time because we were passionate about participation in research projects and backed it by excellent time-management skills, hard work and focus. Finally, the presence of an excellent and experienced mentor is critical to a successful undergraduate research project.

If any undergraduate wishes to participate in a research project, it is important to start gathering information about the area that you they interested in researching. The undergraduate could get this information from a meeting with a potential mentor, or by exploring the Internet, or by reading brochures. The role of discussing plans at home i.e. with your parents or peers cannot be underestimated since they may be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and may help you arrive at an informed decision. This must be followed by taking stock of available time spent on existing commitments (class schedules, social meeting). Planning for research is equally if not more important that the research itself!

Our participation in the research projects under experienced faculty helped us get an introduction about the field. We acquired information about different types of spatial data that may be available from different federal agencies. Furthermore, we discovered how different types of spatial data are used by the federal and private sectors. We also improved our analytical thinking by working with different types of satellite and GIS data and honed our time management skills. The model that we have discussed in this paper has been beneficial to us in many ways. Although many of us have families or are working during the day and night, we were still able to learn and acquire skills that may open the doors to many internship and employment opportunities in the geospatial industry. For other community colleges like BCC, we believe that our experience will enable others to emulate and even improve upon our successes.

Our research participation benefited us in many ways. It gave us an opportunity to get exposure to an important technology that has numerous applications. It gave us information about advanced studies and career opportunities, and helped us in developing presentation and writing skills in peer-reviewed journals and technical reporting. Most importantly, it presented us with an opportunity to work with other students in a team environment and interact with faculty outside the classroom. Two of the project members were awarded scholarships from NOAA-CREST and NSF, and others have enrolled in advanced geospatial courses in 4 year colleges for higher studies. The research participation boosted our self-confidence, made our life in college an enriching and enjoyable experience and of course gave some extra credits and an enhanced CV!

We are grateful to our supervisor and faculty mentor Dr. Sunil Bhaskaran who devoted extra time outside his busy schedule and guided us on these projects. Dr. Bhaskaran introduced us to many concepts and provided hands-on training in geospatial technology. Our dedication and his motivation and guidance contributed immensely to the success of the projects. These projects gave us an opportunity to participate and learn about geospatial technology and the software. Thanks are also due to the department Chair of Chemistry Dr. Neal Phillip, who was very supportive throughout the project. We are also grateful to the Director of NOAA-CREST Prof. Reza Khanbilvardi for providing us with scholarship and funding for this project. Finally, we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude towards the families and friends of the project team for their encouragement in the duration of successfully completing the projects.

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