Bachelor Education in Land Surveying and Mapping in Puerto Rico

In the afterthoughts of his book “The Presence of the Past,” David Thelen concludes that “Without history we wouldn't know who we are.” Dealing with events and people of the past and how they impacted the general flow of events is a beneficial experience for every individual. Here we take time to review the most important facts of the creation and evolution of the first bachelor degree in Land Surveying and Mapping in Puerto Rico.

The Origins

The initial steps for the creation of the Land Surveying and Mapping program at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico occurred in the mid 1960s, when the Surveyors Association of Puerto Rico (SAPR) understood that, in order to strengthen the profession, it was imperative to create a bachelors degree program in the island. At that time, the education required to practice surveying was an Associate Degree. The SAPR first proposed the idea of raising the degree to the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus (UPR-M), a logical step since at the time, that institution offered the only Surveying program in Puerto Rico. For different reasons this academic institution rejected the idea.

At the same time, but in the San Juan area, Ernesto Vazquez-Torres was creating an academic institution named “Technological School of San Juan.” This school offered short term career programs. After the UPR-M rejection, the SAPR started looking for alternatives for their objective and saw an opportunity in the institution recently created by Vazquez-Torres. The SAPR directives contacted him and discuss the proposal. The idea of creating a bachelors degree in Surveying at the heart of Metropolitan San Juan was very attractive. At that time, Metropolitan San Juan was facing a period of accelerated urban expansion, being a period of high demand for surveyors in the area. Most surveyors, graduated from the two year program at UPR-M, thought it was a great idea to go further in their education to reach a bachelor’s level. But work was in San Juan, thus the educational offering had to be in San Juan so they could at least study part time during the evenings. The idea was attractive and ambitious for the Technological School, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to offer a bachelors degree.

To face the adventure, Vazquez-Torres contacted Ronald S. Bauer, President of World University in Puerto Rico, and proposed a joint program among the institutions where World University would offer general education courses (Spanish, English and Mathematics) and the Technological School would offer surveying related courses. World University would be the granting institution of the Bachelors Degree in Applied Science with concentration in Land Surveying. Bauer liked the idea and accept the proposal. On March 25, 1966 the agreement between the two institutions was signed. The Technological School changed its name to Polytechnic Lyceum of Puerto Rico. The program officially starts that same year.

The First Program

The design of the first program had the participation of several distinguished surveyors in Puerto Rico like Conrado Abruña, Rubén Sugrañes and Jenaro Negrón, in representation of the SAPR. This first program consisted of 153 credits of which 72 were in Surveying and 81 were non-technical courses. That program included courses in Surveying and Mapping, Property Appraisal, Principles of Real Estate, Photogrammetry and road design.

Once the program was established it required the recognition and acceptance of the Board of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors of Puerto Rico. After the recognition, graduates could take the examination test and obtain the Surveyors License from the state. The first graduate class in 1969 consisted of 10 students, of which 9 passed the examination successfully. The program evolved favorably. The growth was reflected in the enrollment of the program. By year 1973 there were 29 graduates, of which 17 took the examination and 14 of them passed successfully.

The success of the program suggested Vazquez-Torres and his son Vázquez-Barquet that there was a large market for engineering related careers programs in the Metropolitan Area. They come with the idea of creating a bachelor program in civil engineering, following the same strategy as the one created for surveying. But this time Bauer, and World University, were not with the same impetus for the new venture. The relation between the institutions was broken and Vazquez-Torres decides to take different path. Then, in 1974, the Polytechnic Lyceum became the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico with two bachelors programs, Land Surveying & Mapping and Civil Engineering. Unlike the Applied Science degree offered by the World University, the Polytechnic University offered a Bachelor of Science with a concentration in Land Surveying and Mapping. From this point on all courses were offered by the Polytechnic University. By that time program enrollment reached 188 students.

Changes in the 1980s

In 1980, a new law (Law 12) to regulate the practice of Surveying and Engineering was passed. One of the many changes brought by this law was the requirement of a bachelor's degree in Surveying in order to take the examination test and eventually get licensed by the state to work as a professional surveyor. Polytechnic University had the only program that fulfilled this new requirement.

At the same time, the university was implementing internal organizational changes. The institution took the decision to move the Land Surveying and Mapping program under the umbrella of the Civil Engineering Department. That move affected seriously the stability of the program. The program independence and the strong image created fell dramatically. A substantial reduction in student enrollment was faced. Added to this situation was that loss of the hegemony as the only bachelor program on the island since, by that time, two other universities offered similar programs.

Specifically by 1988, the program only had 19 students enrolled. The university was considering if the program had fulfilled its mission and it was time to close. But based on the tradition and pride of being the program that started all, a new opportunity was given. Antonio Filardi-Guzmán, PLS, part of the first graduate class was brought to take charge of the direction of the department. In a personal interview with Filardi-Guzman, in 1998, he explained me that the first action he took as director to rescue the department was to regain the independence the program had in the 1970’s, the second objective was to increase enrollment in the program and the third one was a campaign to invite to the university all those Surveyors with Associate Degrees to finish their bachelors degree, taking in account the education and experience they had. For the university the task of increasing enrollment was the most important.

Another issue related to the competitiveness of the program was its obsolescence; it hadn’t had a curricular update in many years. With the help of professional organizations, Filardi-Guzman coordinated a major curricular review of the program. The first change was related to mathematics. Surveying Applications and Analysis Surveying courses were created. Those courses covered topics such as algebra, plane geometry, solid geometry, trigonometry, flat, spherical trigonometry and statistics. The innovation was that all courses taught mathematics with an emphasis on surveying applications. He also introduced supplementary courses in GPS, GIS, Urban Planning and Land and Property Appraisal.

The new program was approved by the institution and became effective in 1992. Apart from changes to the program and structure of the department, the program received benefits from the closure of one of their competitors, the Surveying Program at the Turabo University. This reduced surveying education alternatives to only two programs on the island and geographically apart. Those events, along with other minor conditions, helped the Department's enrollment to grow to a sustained level averaging 300 students annually over the next decade.

The New Millennium

After almost a decade of the reviewed program being in effect, one major concern was that some supplementary courses were never offered because there was no faculty with the credentials to teach them. The diversity of thematic areas beyond Surveying was reinforced with the appointment of specialists for each topic. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) taught by a Geographer, Urban Planning taught by an Urban Planner, Geology and Hydrology taught by a Geologist, and Property Appraisal taught by a Real Estate Appraiser all licensed and certified professionals for their areas. This interdisciplinary group brought to the Department a wealth of educational topics observed only in a few programs through the world.

The new millennium also brought new changes in the direction of the Department. In October 2000, Prof. Julio Pujols-Girard, PLS, became the new department director. Filardi-Guzman was appointed Director Emeritus, first in the history of the university. He passed away in 2002.

With the appointment of Pujols-Girard the accreditation of the program under ABET became a priority. I was appointed to organize all efforts toward that objective. But the most significant change occurred on January 27, 2004, when the faculty of the Department of Land Surveying and Mapping, unanimously voted to change the name of the department to Department of Geomatic Sciences. The idea was to give a fresh and contemporary image of the department. This trend has been identified in principal surveying departments in North America and in Europe as well. In April 2004, Pujols-Girard decided to reduce his workload and devote himself to full-time teaching and writing a book. Then I was appointed department director. I continued overseeing the ABET accreditation efforts, including the official visit in fall 2007 and the satisfying announcement of the program accreditation under the Applied Science Accreditation Commission in Fall 2008, becoming the only land surveying and mapping program ever accredited by ABET in Puerto Rico.

The Future

The Geomatic Sciences Department continues innovating and reinventing, not only the Land Surveying and Mapping program, but other offerings that will help solidify the department and the surveying professional practice in general. Currently awaiting for approval, is a Master program in Geospatial Science and Technology, the first in Puerto Rico on this subject. For many years surveyors have identified the need for graduate education and have asked for the creation of a master program, again Polytechnic University is receptive to those requests and is working to fulfill societal needs.

A GIS certificate program had been offered since 2004. It had helped many surveyors to keep in touch with new technologies to implement in the day to day operation of their business. The GIS certificate it’s not exclusively for surveyors, others professionals like engineers, architects or geographers have taken advantage of it. This creates an atmosphere were surveyors interact with other professional sharing ideas and identifying GIS as an interdisciplinary tool. In order to maintain innovation and the attractiveness of the academic offerings, online delivery techniques, from full online to web enhanced courses, had been adopted in all courses with the use of Blackboard Content Management platform. Those delivery techniques were supported by enhanced infrastructure, continued education to faculty and hi-end computing and communications equipment.

The Geomatic Sciences Department is committed to sustain this growth and innovation path respecting our inheritance but looking far ahead into the future.
Raúl Matos-Flores is Associate Professor of the Geomatics Science Department at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. He is a GIS specialist with a Master Degree in GIS from Huddersfield University in England and, at the time of writing this article, he is a PhD candidate in Cartography, GIS and Remote Sensing at Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in Spain. Professor Matos is a GISP, one out of the three in Puerto Rico, from the GIS Certification Institute and also a licensed professional urban planner.

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