Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

From Farm to Data Table: Students Use Geographic Information Systems to Boost Crop Yields

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

From Farm to Data Table: Students Use Geographic Information Systems to Boost Crop Yields

Article excerpt

Leonel Deleon may have found his calling in the fields of cotton, sorghum and corn growing in the sunbaked soil of the Texas Coastal Bend.

Last spring, the Del Mar College student was part of a team using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to measure the populations of pests like the verde plant bug and cotton fleahopper and produce data that helps farmers maximize their crop yield.

"It's important because it affects people's livelihoods," said Deleon, 24, whose internship with Texas A&M AgriLife Research came courtesy of a grant from the U.S. Dept, of Agriculture (USDA). "After Del Mar I may apply for a job with Agrilife just to see what it's like to do GIS on a full-time basis. This has changed my direction in life."

GIS technology incorporates computer programs and data such as Global Positioning System coordinates to create maps used to analyze and assess real-world problems. The maps can be viewed electronically or on paper.

Perfect training ground

In South Texas, GIS is nearly synonymous with agriculture. As a result, local farmland around Corpus Christi, where the college is located, is a perfect training ground for Del Mar GIS students who receive internships through grants from the USDA. By the end of this summer, about 40 internships will have been made possible by $352,000 in USDA grants over the past four years, said Jonda Halcomb, PhD, dean of Del Mar's division of arts and sciences.

Besides agriculture, GIS technology is increasingly useful in business, marketing, marine science, urban development and other fields, Halcomb said.

"With GIS, you're not limited to any one area. I want students to be prepared for other fields where they can add GIS to their expertise."

Ground truthing

In a process called ground truthing, Deleon and his colleagues went into farmfields looking for insect nymphs on plants and plotting their locations on handheld GIS devices, he said. Then, using a software program called ArcMap, they put the data on a map that indicates the number of insects in the sampling area.

"We show this data to our clients, the farmers," Deleon said. "They can determine how much pesticide to use and where to use it. It's interesting to hear them talk about the insects and how destructive they are."

The data is especially valuable to sorghum farmers. Recently, Coastal Bend sorghum fields became the epicenter of a multi-state infestation of aphids, a pest that sucks the sap from the stems and leaves of the plant, said Mike Brewer, field crop entomologist with Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

Student learning

While Del Mar's GIS students are contributing to farmers' productivity, the real focus of the internships is student learning, Brewer said. …

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