Education Spotlight: Experiential Learning Prepares Selkirk College Graduates for Success

November 17, 2016

“Our program certainly offers a theoretical component, but instead of applying what they learn in a lab, students can go outside and, for example, work in our 400-hectare educational forest instead.” 
- Ian Parfitt, MSc, Coordinator, Selkrik Geospatial Research Centre, Selkirk College 

The Environment & Geomatics program at Selkirk College has developed a winning recipe for career success for its students: a hearty dose of classroom education, combined with a generous portion of outdoor learning and a dash of real-world experience.

A high percentage of students graduating from the program are finding jobs in their field, and organizations are posting co-op student positions months before the submission deadline in hopes of landing high-performing students. These indicators demonstrate the program’s success for preparing its graduates with foundational GIS skills to apply to real-world project work.

Ian Parfitt, a GIS Instructor in the program and coordinator of the Selkirk College Geospatial Research Centre (SGRC), has helped to develop this program for many years. In particular, he has collaborated with colleagues and the program’s advisory committee, as well as integrated feedback from various industries, to establish a curriculum that blends theory and hands-on learning.  Mr. Parfitt and his colleagues have also capitalized on the outdoor educational opportunities afforded by the school’s location in the spectacular Selkirk Mountains in south eastern British Columbia.

“I’m a believer in experiential learning,” he said. “Our program certainly offers a theoretical component, but instead of applying what they learn in a lab, students can go outside and, for example, work in our 400-hectare educational forest instead.”

Selkirk’s Environment & Geomatics program offers students both college and university-level training. This includes two-year diplomas respectively in three areas: Forest Technology, Recreation Fish & Wildlife, and Integrated Environmental Planning. Each diploma includes at least two GIS courses to impart a basic understanding of how location-based technology can be applied to complete student project work. All programs include an introduction to ArcGIS for Desktop, an application that allows users to manage geographic data, create maps, perform spatial analysis and share their results.

The two-year diploma programs prepare students for careers in the forestry and oil and gas industries, as well as the public sector at the municipal, regional and federal levels. Approximately 50% of the programs’ graduates continue their post-secondary education by attending other schools, thanks to the credit transfer agreements that Selkirk has in place with seven institutions in Canada and Australia. Other graduates usually jump right into entry-level field technician positions.

Another option for students who achieve a two-year diploma in the Environment & Geomatics program is studying towards an Advanced Diploma in GIS. This one-year diploma program prepares students for positions as GIS analysts, applications specialists, spatial data managers, and project and land managers.

A valuable component of this diploma is a four-month co-op education experience that is facilitated by Selkirk’s Co-op Education & Employment Services department, which connects students with positions in organizations in the private and public sectors. The program has had a 90% success rate in placing students into paid internship positions over the past four years.

 “The co-op term serves as an opportunity for students to integrate and apply the knowledge they’ve acquired into a real-world environment,” said Mr. Parfitt.

The career pathway undertaken by Selkirk graduate Suzanne Fordyce—who earned a Bachelor of GIS degree in 2015—exemplifies the benefits of the school’s co-op program. As a co-op student in her third year, Ms. Fordyce worked for four months at the Selkirk College Geospatial Research Centre (SGRC), a research centre that specializes in developing GIS-based solutions to solve environmental and socio-economic issues through partnerships with non-profit organizations, businesses and industries in the region.

Selkirk College graduate Suzanne Fordyce helps to maintain the Parks and Trail Locations app (above) that is publicly available in Columbia Shuswap Regional District’s online map gallery.

One of Ms. Fordyce’s responsibilities during this co-op placement was collaborating with Selkirk’s Rural Development Institute to create maps and maintain an interactive web map that reports on well-being indicators in the Columbia Basin-Boundary Region. She continued on her employment at the SGRC with a research position during her fourth year at the college. Ms. Fordyce worked with software provider BOS Forestry to develop a web mapping application extension for their forestry asset management solution.

“Gaining real-world experience via the co-op program was vital to achieving my current position as a GIS technician for the Columbia Shuswap Regional District,” said Ms. Fordyce. “Many jobs out there require at least one year of experience and the co-op program delivered that. Plus, the co-op positions helped me hone my communication and problem-solving skills.”

In her current role at Columbia Shuswap Regional District, Ms. Fordyce performs a range of digital mapping, analysis and reporting duties to support decisions related primarily to land-use planning. Her main assignment is supporting Parks and Recreation, and the Shuswap Tourism department by producing and updating maps for project work and keeping trail information current.

ArcGIS is the key GIS technology that students learn in Selkirk’s Environment & Geomatics program, and Ms. Fordyce believes this has been crucial to the success she has enjoyed in her role. The ArcGIS skills she applies on a daily basis include: managing the organization’s geodatabase; editing, geo-referencing and serving up maps to ArcGIS for Server; automating tasks using Python; and creating web-based maps and applications with JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS.

“New questions are always raised in my department, and I’m able to say ‘I can do that!’, or at least ‘Yes! I know what that is,’” said Ms. Fordyce. “It makes me grateful for my well-rounded Selkirk education.”             

Like Ms. Fordyce, David Greaves is building valuable experience through Selkirk’s co-op program. He’s a fourth-year student completing his Bachelor’s degree in GIS. Currently, David is working at the SGRC as a National Research Council intern, focusing his efforts on projects involving unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, online mapping and support for non-profit organizations.

Fourth-year student David Greaves used an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to create an orthomosiac aerial image of a local organic farm as part of his co-op placement with the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre.

“It’s not often that a co-op position turns out to be your dream job,” said Mr. Greaves. “The co-op program has served as a great launching pad for my future career within the GIS industry. It has given me the opportunity to interact with many individuals and organizations fulfilling key roles.”

He also shares another similarity with Ms. Fordyce in that his ArcGIS skills are benefitting his project work.

“ArcGIS is an important component of my toolkit for analyzing land cover, managing extremely large raster mosaic datasets and producing high-quality maps,” said Mr. Greaves. “It also provides a wealth of tools that I often use to streamline productivity, effectively manage data and enhance workflows.”

In terms of future developments in Selkirk’s Environment & Geomatics program, Mr. Parfitt says they are exploring the possibility of offering online courses. A plan to offer a set of five courses as an online certificate is currently in the works. Also, the growing interest and application of UAVs, LiDAR and remote sensing—particularly in the forestry industry—is encouraging Mr. Parfitt and his colleagues to devote more time and attention to teaching students about these trending technologies.

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