Holistic Surveying

An ongoing major concern of surveyors across the country is how to attract new blood to our profession, starting by attracting them to the surveying degree programs in our colleges and universities. The problem is not an easy one to address, particularly in light of the fact that I have found such varying backgrounds of surveyors and that many have interesting stories of their circuitous and serendipitous journeys to their present livelihood. What is it that we should be telling young people to draw them to surveying? What are the "triggers" that will fire their imaginations and excite them about surveying?

In part, the first step toward the answer lies in finding a way to define surveying. That in itself is not a cut and dried set of words. We hear about the "art and science" of surveying, about "that branch of engineering in which…" about boundaries and measurements. Are any of these correct approaches? Are any of them incorrect?

One thing that surveying is not is static. It changes with technology, with society's views on legal responsibilities, with the increasing interaction of surveyors with other experts in such fields as engineering, environmental resource management, geographic, and land information systems. With such broad horizons, our knowledge must extend into areas outsiders would not consider within our skills. But surveyors do read, attend seminars, and participate in lively discussions to be at least familiar with these other fields, often to a surprising depth (surprising at least to outsiders, who do not understand how inquisitive we surveyors can be).

Surveyors possess a wide range of skills: we manage, we communicate, we collect, analyze, and manage data. The outcome of all these activities is often that we educate our clients through maps and reports. Combined with an understanding of how our field of expertise relates to others, this all-encompassing, multi-disciplinary field is, to me, a holistic one. We can often answer the five basic questions (who, what, why, when, and where) while others may only be able to respond to two or three of them.

I know surveyors who began as accountants, as mathematicians, as high school teachers, as artists. The hard task is to find a common denominator that drew such diverse personalities to a single field. Perhaps it is the diversity of our profession itself that is the answer. A few years ago, the surveying program for the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) needed a newer, flashier brochure. The head of the program there, Dr. Joshua Greenfeld, called together a group of people he knew were concerned enough to help work on advertising the program. Since surveyors aren't usually known for advertising themselves, this was a chance to step outside of our usual roles and try to see what it is that outsiders might not recognize as "our work." Thus was born a list of "Ten Reasons to Pursue a Career in Surveying," which follows:


1. Global Positioning Systems (GPS): work with satellite-based positioning and navigation systems to precisely locate points on the surface of the earth.
2. Geographic Information Systems (GIS): create digital maps on a computer to represent the real world graphically.
3. Photogrammetry: create maps from aerial photographs and remote sensing imagery. Maps are created by means of computer-based image processing.
4. Control surveys: provide horizontal or vertical position data for dependent surveying or mapping projects. Geodetic control surveys take into account the shape and size of the earth, when distances are long and must curve to accurately describe the land.
5. Route surveys: determine feasibility of different routes for railroad, highway, canal, pipelines, and transmission lines for alignment, grade, and property to be acquired.
6. Construction surveys: measure to establish horizontal and vertical positions and dimensions for construction, to determine adequacy of completion, and to determine quantities of materials and soil volumes
7. Hydrographic surveys: determine depth of water, configuration of bottom of water bodies for mapping and navigation, directions and forces of currents, heights, and times of tides and water stages.
8. Boundary surveys: establish or re-establish limits of privately or publicly owned tracts of land
9. Historic surveys: recover and preserve ancient evidence of property lines and archaeological discoveries
10. Judicial surveys: ordered by courts to resolve boundary disputes

The list is not exhaustive, but it is intended to show a sampling of the many options available to those who become surveyors. Interestingly, compiling the list was a relatively speedy process. We had a few other suggestions that were combined to keep our list short and sweet, and ten seemed a good number, similar to David Letterman's lists (although without the punch line).

However, what some of us did argue about was the order in which these should be listed. In brainstorming the list, the first contributions were boundary and construction surveys. But note that those ended up near the end (not to be confused with "bottom") of the list. Dr. Greenfeld had the final word; he wanted to try to advertise the snazzier, more technical aspects of what we do, to step away from the image of flannel shirts and muddy shoes, hoping to attract students who might otherwise never think of surveying as a lifetime career worth four years of intensive study. And so the more modern aspects of surveying became the leaders on the list.

Universal Appeal
However, if we choose to promote surveying to students, we must do it with the passion we feel for our profession. We must combine the excitement of clues from the past with the techno-pizzazz of the present and future. We must appeal to both right- and left-brained people, the intuitive, and the methodical. And it is important to reach students at an early age. As schools funnel their student bodies into different academic tracks earlier and earlier, we must present surveying sooner as an option for a creative career with ever-broadening possible applications of knowledge and skill. High school is too late. Grade school is just about right, catching students before they become convinced that math and problem solving are either boring or scary. Pick two or three of the holistic options from the list, and find a real-life application to share. Your excitement will be contagious, and a future surveyor may be born.


WENDY LATHROP is licensed in four Eastern states, and is a professional planner in New Jersey. She is also a Contributing Writer for the magazine.

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