Diversity of unique programs
“ The institute has always been innovative and flexible. When it identified a need, it moved quickly to meet that need, and when there was no further need for a course it moved quickly to cancel it. In 1986 it was renamed the College of Geographic Sciences (COGS).” [Angus Hamilton, Chapter 13 Education in ‘Mapping a Northern Land’ edited by Gerald McGrath and Louis Sebert. 1999. Page 413.]
This paragraph was written in 1999 in ‘Mapping a Northern Land’ and covers the COGS era. As a specialist technical institute, COGS had a proven reputation for the identification of new programs and also as technology changed and society demand changed, for the cancellation of programs. A review of programs offered in the 1980-2000 window confirms this external opinion (see Appendix 1). The core programming related to the Surveying profession remained constant however the changes in computing technology, as applied to mapping, saw a rapid progression from Scientific Computer Programming to Computer Graphics to GIS. This continued into the 1990s with Business Geographics and Geomatics Programming.
An argument can be made, that while COGS remained a specialist institute, there was the flexibility to add and drop programs in response to perceived market demand. When placed within a single provincial Community College there were additional considerations. Pressure existed to standardize the IT curriculum across all campuses. A student should be able to start their training at a rural campus and later efficiently transfer to a metro campus and complete the program. Program numbers illustrate the desire for a more homogenous set of programs offered under the Centre of Geographic Sciences (NSCC) than the diversity that was available through the College of Geographic Sciences (COGS).
When COGS was a semi-autonomous institute, faculty managed all aspects of a program from recruitment, aptitude tests, program delivery, co-operative projects with external clients to job placement.
Within the NSCC context, many of these responsibilities were removed from the instructor and have become part of the administrative infrastructure of the college.
Co-operative projects were conceived to ensure that graduates had the skill sets demanded by industry. With new computing technology, COGS was acquiring hardware and software that was ahead or at the industry standard. Given the training of scientific computer programmers it was critical that the graduates appreciated the underlying science as well as the potential of the technology to change our approach.
The co-operative project offered a ‘cap stone’ experience with an external client. The problem definition was shared between the student, the instructor and the external client. These projects were completed in a single, final semester after two semesters learning the tools and the underlying concepts.
Co-operative projects allowed industry and government agencies to monitor the quality of our graduates and to offer employment where appropriate. In the situation where the project required customization of application systems, co-operative projects generated a cadre of industry ready graduates for an expanding market. This was especially true with both GIS software and Image Analysis systems. In the 1980s, the primary beneficiaries were Esri and Dipix. This has remained true for Esri today. The Canadian image processing industry has evolved from Dipix and Tydac to PCI and other American companies.
Fifty week format
At the outset with Canada Employment and Immigration Centre (CEIC) funding, NSLSI invented the intensive fifty-week, three-semester program with each semester lasting sixteen weeks. This model started with the Scientific Computer Programming program and was later adopted by Business Computer Programming, Computer Graphics, Remote Sensing and GIS. Whereas Surveying, Cartography and Planning followed the two-semester model. During the 1980s there were various attempts to rationalize all programs to the same format. In the 1990s, there was recognition that perhaps the intensity was too much, especially for the instructors. With the advent of the NSCC, and the need to offer consistent employment conditions to all instructors, all programs went to the traditional post secondary education, two-semester model.
The tri-semester model worked well for students from a funding perspective, and from the perspective of students with a first degree wanting to learn practical technical skills to complement their scientific background. From personal experience, as an instructor, it was unsustainable. Although with a different allocation of resources, it should have been achievable.
Keeping current with technology
The secret to keeping current with technology is a strong relationship with the technology providers. In the computing world, this means working with software developers to enhance their products, and at the same time, train another cadre of specialists. On the hardware side, it means the ability to change suppliers from mini-computers to microcomputers to hand-held devices. Today, the complexity ranges from cloud computing to desk-top to lap-top to mobile devices. Application software can be delivered on any combination of these platforms.
To teach students about these environments requires access to all the environments. It requires instructors who have the time and capacity to transfer ideas across environments. This can be achieved through conferences, workshops, industry projects. One of the successful strategies at COGS was the situation where graduates worked for a technology supplier, developed an appreciation for the corporate culture, and then returned to COGS as an instructor. This works well in a climate of expanding business opportunities and where instructors are encouraged to keep current with new developments. This was common in the 1980s at COGS.
Intelligence Rescue program
John Wightman reflects on the number of COGS graduates that he has run into, who express the way in which the advanced diploma at COGS changing their career path and life. For example, the SCP program had an intake of graduates from university with a science degree. They had good mathematical and scientific reasoning skills. By offering intensive training with current technology, graduates combined their science interests with practical skills. The ‘intelligence rescue’ concept articulated by John is that, without access to current technology skills, smart university students with a passion for science had a more limited set of opportunities. Technical skills allowed them to apply their thinking to a much broader range of societal issues. This combination was very powerful. At COGS,we applied the same philosophy to the Business Computer Programming, Computer Graphics, Remote Sensing and GIS.
COGS role in economic development.
To locate a technical institute in a rural setting (JB Hall’s original idea) makes eminent sense from the perspective of economic development. There are two big pluses. The first is that in a rural environment, there are limited social distractions. Students can focus intently and intensively on the skills they want to acquire in a short period of time. This makes the programs cost effective to a student with loan payments, and yet it gives them the freedom to make mistakes (one of Major Church’s values) and to experiment with different problem solving approaches. The second plus is that the technical skills offered at COGS are related to the land, its geography and its resources. In the Annapolis valley, there is a natural laboratory for addressing a wide variety of resource management issues. These issues are global in nature, and there is a need to survey, map and analyze these same issues across Canada, as well as at the international level.
In the world of software development, the development of new tools can occur anywhere. Therefore, there are opportunities not only for teaching and research, but also for businesses, with access to high quality graduates, to remain and support rural Nova Scotia.
The key words are ‘high quality graduates’; those who are operating at the leading edge of the technological suite offered through COGS. To maintain the quality, there is a need for instructors with access to the new tools and partnerships with global industries, which specialize in the application of these technologies. The investment in instructors with these specialist skills leads to the development of the next generation of graduates, who have the opportunity to find work globally, as well as to establish businesses, which can contribute to economic development in Nova Scotia.
Interestingly, an analysis of instructors who started their teaching career at COGS shows that many remain in the region after retirement and they continue to contribute significantly to the local rural economy.
A number of graduates remain the region and establish their own businesses, or they go west for a period of time, but return to bring up their family, bringing skills and income into the local economy.
Caring school culture
In the early years of NSLSI and COGS, students in the community were treated like family, and many became family, they boarded with families in the village. There was also a sense of family within the school.
The front office staff got to know the students; many shake their heads and tell stories of the crazy things that went on, and how hard the students worked. Many of the faculty met the students when they travelled throughout the province recruiting students, and then became friends, when they reappeared in September.
Front office staff like Donna Eisner, Frances Balser, Donna Bent, Judy Foster, Marion Larsen all made sure that students got the right piece of paper, and were sent to the right office for funding. Janitorial staff were the front staff at night, when students needed support. Over the years, this included Fred Duncan, Arthur Lowe, Norm Buckler, Dave Jolly, Gary Gaul, Johnny Beals, Terry McNeil and others of shorter duration. They all contributed significantly to the community of over two hundred students and staff in the Lawrencetown building – the College of Geographic Sciences.