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News and Views from the University of Redlands

Spatial research takes the stage

Anthony M. Vazquez ’19 (right) explains his work that evaluates habitat recovery in the Falkland Islands, a region where military conflict has left the grasslands studded with landmines. (Photo by Narrative Images)

Hideko Sera can open a map and see opportunities to give kids a better future. Sera, associate dean of the University of Redlands School of Education, is working to bring talented student teachers into schools where kids may have had fewer educational and economic opportunities, in keeping with the School’s mission of educational justice.

Associate Dean Hideko Sera speaks about her study with Steven Moore, director of the U of R Center for Spatial Studies, evaluating whether the School of Education’s mission in educational justice is being served by its student teacher placements. (Photo by Narrative Images)

But how to know if the right schools are being served? To answer this question, Sera teamed up with U of R Center for Spatial Studies Director Steven Moore. Together, they looked at indicators of socio-economic status, such as percentage of students who qualified for free lunch, and factors such as English and math scores and absenteeism at schools across the region where U of R student teachers are placed. This sophisticated mapping effort confirmed that student teachers really are being placed on campuses in need.

Sera and Moore’s findings made up just one of many University of Redlands presentations at the Esri User Conference in San Diego July 6 to 12. The University also hosted a reception with more than 200 students, faculty, and partners in attendance. The strong showing at the conference highlighted the strength of U of R spatial research, as well the integration of spatial studies across the Redlands curriculum—not just in education, but also in fields including business and environmental studies.

Sponsored by leading global mapping software company Esri, which is headquartered in Redlands and has close ties to the University, the annual Esri User Conference brings together leading spatial studies researchers and advocates from around the world.

Protecting the environment through spatial studies

Biologist Jane Goodall advocates the use of spatial studies to protect animals such as chimpanzees and their habitats. (Photo by Narrative Images)

Few know the value of spatial studies like biologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, who was awarded an honorary degree from the U of R in 2016. As an Esri User Conference plenary speaker, Goodall described how climate change is pushing chimpanzees out of their natural ranges and into areas with more people and agriculture. Biologists need to understand where the animals are going in order to protect them. “Those are things we have to map,” Goodall told the audience.

Conservation has also been a goal for several U of R conference participants. Anthony M. Vazquez ’19, a student in the Master of Science in Geographic Information Systems (MS GIS) program, spent the last year using Esri mapping tools to evaluate habitat recovery in the Falkland Islands, a region where military conflict has left the grasslands studded with landmines.

Vazquez worked closely with the Falkland Islands government to use imaging data to measure how habitats were recovering following a government initiative to clear the minefields. His research shows which areas are bouncing back—and how quickly. These findings can inform decisions about whether to open the grasslands to public use.

Vazquez said the project was a great way to get hands-on experience in GIS while earning a valuable degree. “I want to thank the University of Redlands,” said Vazquez. “Without the University, all its professors, and my cohort, this project would not have happened—and I wouldn’t have had this amazing experience working on it.”

Fang Ren (right), U of R Geographic Information Systems chair, congratulates Jonah Lay ’19 (left) on receiving the Graduate-Level Roger Tomlinson Award for Excellence in GIS. (Photo by Narrative Images)

MS GIS student Jonah Lay ’19 presented research into the levels of a pesticide in Sierra Nevada glaciers. Understanding pesticide levels is important for conservation and human health, explained Lay, who is the recipient of the 2019 Graduate-Level Roger Tomlinson Award for Excellence in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Ocean winds carry pesticides from California’s Central Valley and deposit the contaminants into the snow of the Sierra Nevada. Seasonal melting then sends these pesticides straight into our drinking water.

To grasp the levels of pesticides, researchers needed to understand the direction and slopes of the ridges and glaciers of the Sierra Nevada. Lay collaborated with U of R Professor of Chemistry Rebecca Lyons to measure snow volume and use LiDAR data to recreate ridges and glaciers in 3D. The new maps will support Lyons’s studies into concentrations of a harmful molecule in pesticides, called 4-nonylphenol. “This project shows that GIS is extremely valuable in the scientific arena,” said Lay.

Other U of R conservation-related presentations included “Integrating SAR, Drones, and Field Observation to Monitor Deforestation in Panama” by Abigail Bohman ’19; “Identifying Oak Tree Mortality Using Image Analysis” by Zemen Ambelu ’19; and “Mapping Meadows in Southern California: Drones, GIS, and Student Research” by U of R Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies Hillary Jenkins.

The spatial dimensions of public health-related topics—including legionnaire’s disease, the plague, and diabetes—were the focus of presentations by U of R’s Professor Mark Kumer, Cristhian Loder ’19, and Mark Ross ’19.

During the conference, Goodall, who was awarded an honorary degree from Redlands in 2016, also took time during the conference to meet with U of R students for an update on their work as part of Goodall's conservation youth group, Roots & Shoots.

Spatial research as a teaching tool

Alex Walton ’19 describes his project making real-time air quality data accessible. (Photo by Narrative Images)

While many U of R projects aimed to increase scientific knowledge, others focused on finding innovative ways to promote understanding of critical issues among the general public.  

Alex Walton ’19 presented his collaboration with the Science Museum of Virginia to design and program a “Hyperwall” exhibit. Using an Esri toolkit, Walton wrote an application that can display a library of maps. Museum visitors can use the interactive display to explore real-time air quality data in their neighborhoods, for example, or swipe across the globe to see how glaciers are melting.

“This lets people connect more personally with the data,” said Walton.

Moore, here enjoying the U of R research posters, says “It’s great that we’re showcasing the diversity of spatial work being accomplished at the University.”

Max Babcock ’18, ’19 focused on spatial studies as a way to educate local governments and citizens on the impact of urban development projects. In his presentation, Babcock explained how he used an Esri tool called CityEngine to build a 3D model of downtown San Bernardino.

Many cities use 2D maps to make important decisions about where to build new developments. Babcock said the problem with these flat maps is that it’s hard to visualize how new buildings will affect the surroundings. Will the new buildings cast shadows on homes or block views? “This creates myriad problems for city planners and stakeholders,” said Babcock.

With his new 3D maps, Babcock said the City of San Bernardino can now perform view analyses on development sites. Citizens can also use the maps to quickly visualize how developments will affect them.

Moore noted, “It’s great that we’re showcasing the diversity of spatial work being accomplished at the University. We have a tremendous presence at the User Conference.”

Spatial studies in the job market

The world is only becoming more centered on spatial data. Marketing companies use spatial data to better understand where to reach potential customers. Hospitals use spatial data to know how many beds to offer to serve a region.

Esri Founder and CEO Jack Dangermond (left) walks with School of Business Senecal Endowed Dean Tom Horan to visit the U of R booth. (Photo by Narrative Images)

Thomas Horan, who is the H. Jess and Donna Senecal Endowed Dean of U of R School of Business, said more and more employers are looking for team members skilled in using spatial data.

“We know that spatial insights can help grow businesses,” said Horan in his presentation on “Spatial Business Workforce for Contemporary Business.”

Horan said the U of R is focused on training students how to do more than just analyze spatial data. He said students must also learn how to communicate the story behind the data. For example, how can a company use its spatial data to stand out from competitors?

“We’re getting spatial thinking in our business school, which is carried forward by our alumni as they enter the workforce,” said Horan. “We want our graduates to be able to strategize, to have a vision, and to plan.”

Rebecca Bayer ’18 (left) helps staff a booth raising awareness about the University’s spatial studies programs. (Photo by Narrative Images)

At the Esri User Conference, the School of Business was involved in the Business Leadership Forum, the Senior Executive Forum, and the Esri Business Advisory Council. Students Daniela Belsaguy ’19, Mickey Betancourt ’17, ’19, and Robert Peng, ’19 discussed water main management. And the School of Business sponsored the first U of R College of Arts and Sciences spatial business award (won by Mariah Sanchez '19 and Alex Estrada '19). 

To make spatial studies even more accessible, the School of Business will launch an online MBA with a concentration in location analytics this fall. The program is already available as part of the school’s on-ground offerings.

Many of the Redlands students who presented at the Esri User Conference plan to apply spatial studies in their careers.

Babcock emphasized how learning about GIS has shifted his career goals. He said that when he started the MS GIS program, he really had no idea what GIS could do. Today, he’s planning on a career in GIS and found the Esri User Conference to be a good networking opportunity.

Babcock said, “I really fell in love with GIS.”

Many members of the U of R community turned out for the Esri User Conference. (Photo by Narrative Images)

Learn more about spatial studies at the University of Redlands.