UF/IFAS Expands Geomatics Program | Plant City Observer

Additional faculty added at Plant City campus.

To get a good look at how water on the beds affects strawberries’ growth, Amr Abd-Elrahman looks from the sky. His drones collect images that he converts into a map to reveal how small changes in irrigation look across an entire field.

He can make a map of weeds for scientists developing smart sprayers that hit only weeds, not crops. Or how about monitoring the spread of invasive species like cogon grass that render land unusable for agriculture or recreation? Some day there could be a map for that.

We don’t have enough people like Abd-Elrahman, in academia or industry. Geomatics has broad applications in agriculture, land surveying, infrastructure, documenting damage for relief funding and more.

Thanks in part to Jack Breed, John Clyatt, and Pam and Russ Hyatt and other active board members of the Florida Surveying and Mapping Society (FSMS), we’re fixing the academia part. Their advocacy for expansion of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences geomatics program was influential in the legislatures decision to fund three more faculty positions.

That, in turn, will help us fix the industry part. With more faculty, we’ll be able to prepare more graduates equipped with the skills and certifications to define land boundaries, improve vehicle navigation systems, predict the spread of wildfires, monitor landscape-level effects of drought or detect flood-prone areas.

More than 50% of geomatics graduates from the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) School of Forest, Fisheries, & Geomatics Sciences own or are partners in their own companies, and 65% supervise a surveying and mapping department. Three-fourths of the graduates are registered in Florida. Masters or Ph.D. graduates move into academic careers or key leadership positions in government or industry.

Abd-Elrahman doesn’t just teach the students. He finds them. He knows he’ll have to look harder to catch up with the demand for graduates. So he has secured a National Science Foundation grant to recruit students from low-income areas that have traditionally not been aware of the opportunities that await them in geomatics.

Of course, he’s doing it with geomatics itself. That’s right, he wants to map the teaching and learning of mapping. He can then target recruitment efforts accordingly.

I’ve owed Jack, John, Pam and Russ and the industry a thanks for their support for a long time. One of the best ways I know how is by keeping people like Abd-Elrahman.

That’s part of why we have a tenure and promotion system. We told Amr eight years ago that UF/IFAS wanted him here for his whole career and granted him tenure. It’s a pledge to support him for trying new things and not to penalize him when new ideas don’t turn out as envisioned. And that can happen a lot on the cutting edge where Amr lives. Drones can crash, data collection can be garbled and a map can misrepresent. Without the leeway to make mistakes from which we learn, scientists would stick to more sure bets, which wouldn’t do much to expand knowledge.

We cemented his relationship with UF/IFAS even more this year when we promoted Amr to full professor. Professors, like Amr, have achieved a national reputation, and the title comes with the expectation that they will take on a greater role in mentoring faculty and students and serve the professional associations that serve the industry.

In addition to his promotion, he was recognized in April by CALS as its graduate student teacher/advisor of the year He also picked up awards this year from the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture and FSMS.

When I visited him in his CALS Plant City office this summer, his gadgetry spilled into the hallways. We talked about how to source American-made drones and how we can put imagery to work for farmers and ranchers.

No one else in Florida does this the way UF/IFAS does. Under the leadership of longtime geomatics program leader Bon Dewitt, Amr and his colleagues have put us on the map—in Plant City, in Gainesville, and in Fort Lauderdale.

The program’s expansion and Amr’s growing role as a mentor and leader is good news for Hillsborough, Polk and Florida. The better we are at making sense of spatial relationships, the more informed our decisions will be on how to grow our food and how to grow our communities.

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