UO Seeks to Add New Digital Degree

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), December 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

UO Seeks to Add New Digital Degree


Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

The University of Oregon proposes to graduate a new type of techie who knows how to find, analyze and map trends using big sets of data.

The UO's geography department hopes to next fall launch a new bachelor's degree in Spatial Data Science and Technology, an "absolutely booming" field, according to UO officials.

It already has an acronym: SDST.

The SDST degree "really does not exist, by and large, elsewhere in the nation, although many universities are beginning to take this on," said Andrew Marcus, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

If the UO wins approval from Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission in February, the university will offer the only undergraduate major in SDST in the Pac-12, he said.

"It's a whole new world we're moving into," he said. "This major will put us in the forefront of leading that world."

The proposed degree is part of the UO's push to expand into more career-focused majors. In its proposal, the UO said the program would draw students from Oregon and California, given the presence of many tech firms in both states.

Describing what UO graduates will do when they join the so-called geospatial workforce is difficult, because the skills - a marriage of geography and computer science - can be used in a number of fields.

Spatial technology is used in guiding smart cars, identifying wildlife habitat, tracking diseases, finding terrorists, precision farming, visualizing climate change, finding the best block for a certain business in a city or the most advantageous country to site an industry.

"Companies are looking for graduates who are able to analyze not only the technological but also the local, cultural and social aspects of remote production facilities," according to the UO's SDST proposal. "Globally expanding companies need technologically savvy and geographically aware experts who can guide their global management strategy."

Few schools offer major

While other universities may offer a geography major and maybe a geographic information systems (GIS) certificate, the UO hopes to equip students to create applications and other new technologies for a host of fields - one of which each student will focus on as an undergraduate.

The UO students would learn to use the technology to answer environmental, social and economic questions, according to the UO's proposal.

"The goal is to have our students designing apps, designing spatially enabled analytical tools that they can move into the private sector with - or the public sector," Marcus said.

The 48-credit course of study would include classes on big data sets, computer programming, satellites, data analysis, computational modeling, web-mapping and location-aware services. It would largely use existing UO faculty and staff, the proposal said. The proposal projects 30 students would enroll as majors next year.

The geography department is seeing demand for the subject already, Marcus said. In 2012, the department launched a class called Our Digital Earth. It is based on an electronic book that features evolving "real time" data.

"We tell our students: 'We're not teaching you how to use Google Earth. We're teaching you to make Google Earth,' " said Amy Lobben, the geography department chairwoman.

In 2012, 28 students signed up for Our Digital Earth. Today, the department caps enrollment at 127 students. Since the course's creation, dozens of schools - from major research universities to community colleges - have asked the UO for a syllabus to consider as they design their own courses, Marcus said. …

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