The University of North Alabama (UNA) is comprised of modern campuses situated in the metropolitan cities of Florence, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals. UNA offers a healthy range of courses in its Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, Nursing, and Education and Human Sciences. But what this University is now really getting recognized for is its pioneering approach towards GIS-specialised Geography education.

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) are computer systems that specialize in mapping, capturing, and displaying data from the Earth’s surface for geo-mapping.  GIS is used within a multitude of sectors, including local and Federal Government, land planning, GPS devices, ecology, geology, satellite systems, and vehicle monitoring.

With the Geoscience systems market growing at an annual rate of almost 35%, UNA believes GIS is becoming an increasingly crucial professional field within Environmental Science, and consequently offers its students GIScience Major and minor opportunities to maximize their chances for specialized employment.  

The course options for the GIS Major result in either a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree, and additionally there is the graduate option of a Master of Science in Geospatial Science. The GIS Major focuses study towards practical utility of these data systems in employment, with students gaining a Certificate in Geographic Information Systems, creating coursework and projects that can either feature other facets of Environmental Science, or be contributory to other available subjects, like elementary and secondary teaching, as well as Foreign Languages.

There are plenty of collaborative projects and learning experiences on offer for GIS-focused courses, like the well-guided internship options for third and fourth years, during which students can find themselves working with influential sectors of the GIS industry, like the City of Florence Electrical Board, and Navigation Electronics, Inc.  Geography students can also become members of the Alabama Geographic Alliance, a partnership that aims to use geographic education to improve communities on a local and global scale.

“One of the things that UNA does very well – in geography especially – is that we do problem-based learning,” says UNA’s Dr. Greg Gaston, recipient of the 2013 Fulbright Scholars Fellowship Honors for his teaching efforts as a visiting professor at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in Tanzania. “We teach by making people do. I don’t feel that you learn it until you’ve done it.”

Dr. Gaston is one example of UNA’s applied approach to learning that offers students the chance to apply their subject in practical realities, as well as to gain a sound understanding of how best to use that knowledge to gain future employment.

The international reach of UNA’s Geographical studies also applies to its partnerships, particularly the bond between UNA and University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in Tanzania, where UNA students can travel to teach and learn with other students as part of the Africa Study Abroad Project, which features two courses: GE350 – Geography of Africa and GE497 – East African Landforms and Landscape, as well as practical field trips, guest speakers and lectures, and can also be tied into Education and Foreign Language studies.

For further international studies and experiences, UNA students can join the Magellan Exchange, where they spend a semester studying abroad and widening horizons; a must-have experience for Geography majors. The international learning projects on offer at UNA represent huge opportunities for Geography students to learn how they can apply their knowledge to improving standards of learning, as well as encouraging international relationships and cultural understandings.

The resources for Geography at UNA reflect the professionalism of its teaching style, as the Freddie Wood Geographic Research Center is the hub of the Geography Department at UNA. The Center is fully outfitted with an industry-grade format plotter, and computers and laptops that are equipped specifically for GIS and geographical studies, with all the leading software for GIS applications on hand, including ERDAS Imagine, ArcGIS 10.2, IDRISI Selva, Esri CityEngine, Geospatial Modeling Environment (GME) and SatScan. This unprecedented access to up-to-date industry technology means that graduates will already be familiar with the technology and practices of the industries they seek to work within. 

UNA’s Collier Library is another great location for study material, and also contains computer labs equipped with GIS software.

Furthermore, UNA is a member institution of the Dauphin Island Sea Laboratory that conducts GIScience experiments on seafloor mapping and utility survey projects, as well as education outreach programs and internships for GIS majors to get involved with.

At UNA, there is a strong foundation of work towards making quality education accessible and supportive, and this is demonstrated in its UNA Foundation and scholarships that offers three endowments, two scholarship funds, and a general purpose geography fund to support education, sponsored research, and other learning activities.

GIS Students at UNA can be assured that their lecturers have their career goals in mind, as the support towards post-grad careers is substantial, with lessons that encourage spatial thinking, global and local perspectives, a respect towards education and co-operation, valuable field method experience, and a sound understanding of the complex interactions between humans and the environment that effect all geographical plans and decisions.

The University of North Alabama has a wealth of industry-standard resources and learning opportunities for its students to capitalize on as they become practiced professionals in the ever-growing industry of GIScience. UNA’s staff and students alike embrace the University’s academic theme of ‘Building Success through Discovery’ and continue to be a part of the international scene of collaboration between educators and students as they shape the face of innovation and future.

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