Teaching Old Methods

With the advancements of technology during the past two decades, at what point should we no longer teach the old methods of surveying?


GIS JANET says …

Great question! Thanks go to Kenneth P. Pitts, PLS, land surveyor, terrestrial scanning, operations manager with Sanborn Map Company in St. Louis, Missouri, for submitting this question.

Of course, my answer is … wait! Maybe I shouldn’t sound off with an opinion about how surveying should be taught. After all, I am not a surveyor, nor have I ever taken a surveying class. But if the surveying curriculum doesn’t change to include, at a minimum, a basic class about GIS, then the question becomes, “How will surveyors get the education and training they need to intersect with GIS professionals if their surveying classes are not updated to include learning about geospatial technology?”

Updating a set of tried-and-true classes isn’t done overnight. Curriculum development is a tedious process that involves input from a variety of industry and education professionals. Any proposed changes need to be well thought and carefully planned. This is completely do-able, but first the surveyors need to agree what new course content needs to be added and then what course content it will replace.

I have heard many educators say, “We don’t teach technology—we teach theory and concepts.” I couldn’t agree more with that sound approach, but isn’t there room for both? After all, upon graduation your goal is to get a job and be a productive employee from the first day. Chances are your new job will require you to intersect with all kinds of new and rapidly changing geospatial technology. It’s hard enough for surveying firms to stay profitable in these hard economic times, so imagine the added cost to train employees on new technology.

These days the job market is changing as rapidly as new technology. Hardly a day goes by where the top news story doesn’t include the unemployment rate at the local, state, and national level. Therefore, you will need every advantage to get employed and stay employed in today’s job market. If you know, understand, and are able to use technology, and possibly even assist with the training of co-workers, you will be a valuable asset to your company. Project requirements are also changing rapidly. Due to scarce and limited resources, clients are more involved. They are closely monitoring progress, are working to head off any challenges, and need to feel assured their teams are prepared to take ownership at the project’s completion. This hands-on approach by clients means they will be watching you, the professional, use technology to prepare for the final project transfer. Your OTJ learning curve might be cut short, or you could even find yourself in the training spotlight, explaining how a specific piece of hardware, software, or specialized application works. I hope you are ready when the time comes.

As a professional, you need to show confidence and reliability and let your clients know you will be a resource to them, even after the project is completed. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what you should learn. Decide for yourself that learning about new geospatial technology is in your best interest.


Do we need to continue to teach the “old methods of surveying” so today’s surveyors can use those methods in the daily execution of their work? No, we don’t; I have no interest in heading out to the field with a transit and Gunter’s chain. Do today’s surveyors need to have an understanding of the equipment, methods, and procedures used by our predecessors? Yes, we do.

The boundary retracement survey immediately comes to mind as an example of a survey where knowing “the old methods of surveying” is most needed. Brown’s Boundary Control and Legal Principles, Fifth Edition is arguably the most respected surveyor reference book on the subject of boundary surveys. In Chapter 5.21, authors Walter G. Robillard and Donald A. Wilson state that, in retracing a boundary, “the surveyor is directed to ‘follow the footsteps of the creating surveyor’ if they can be ascertained with certainty on the ground.” With this dictate to the surveyor, I believe we must comprehend and be familiar with those “old methods.”

Being aware of and understanding the difficulties and limitations of both the field equipment and methods of computations used by our surveyor forefathers is crucial to surveyors today. We need this background knowledge to help us make better decisions. The precision of today’s surveying equipment in the field and the computers and software in the office are certainly very markedly improved over the precision of surveying equipment a few centuries or even a few decades ago, when many of the boundaries we retrace today were first established. A working knowledge of yesterday’s survey instruments, methods commonly used by the surveyor, and the evidence typically left in the field by the surveyor to mark boundary corners and boundary lines are all essential for today’s surveyor to determine the accurate location of a previously set boundary corner.

There have also been times when knowledge of the “old methods ” has helped resolve survey discrepancies that were shown on engineering design plans. Knowing the equipment and procedures used by surveyors to obtain the surveying data has assisted in understanding of how errors could have crept into the survey and how to resolve them.

Janet has presented some valid points on the need to teach and learn new geospatial technology. I encourage surveying students and professional surveyors alike to take advantage of opportunities to learn about and use new geospatial technology. There are many surveying disciplines outside boundary and boundary retracement surveying where today’s technology is very useful and productive, including the surveying data incorporated into numerous GIS applications. However, we as surveyors should remember that there are other facets of our mission “to protect the health and welfare of the general public.” These facets may rely on an understanding of the “old methods” to “follow the footsteps” of the original surveyor. We can certainly embrace the technologies of the present and future, but we should not forget or ignore the surveying knowledge of the past.

While Janet and Randy may not see eye to eye on all surveying and GIS issues, they do respect each other’s perspective and point of view and attempt to “intersect” their professions whenever possible. Randy and Janet invite you to submit your questions to “Intersect.” Contact them via email at intersect@mckimcreed.com or 919-417-0894.

About the Authors

  • Janet Jackson, GISP
    Janet Jackson, GISP
    Janet is certified as a GIS professional and is president of INTERSECT, a GIS consulting firm.
  • Randy Rambeau, Sr., PLS
    Randy Rambeau, Sr., PLS
    Randy is a geomatics office manager with McKim & Creed, an engineering, surveying, and planning firm.

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