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Case study 06: Masters of Science in Geographic Information Systems Technology (MS-GIST), University of Arizona


This program integrates science, cutting-edge systems technology, with management skills for use in government, corporate, non-profit, and academic settings. It is designed to meet the important educational needs of working professionals and recent graduates seeking employment in the high-growth geospatial industries. Participating students may have either extensive or limited experience in GIST. The MS-GIST program meets in the evenings (Monday-Thursday), does not require a master's thesis, and can be obtained in one calendar year as it begins in January and ends in December. The curriculum brings together technical and other professional GIS education that will lead toward placement in the geospatial industry.


GIS, Master’s in GIS, Professional Master’s Degree

Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice

The MS-GIST program offers an integrative approach to graduate education that allows for deep learning, fostering of a learning community and of multi-faceted professional development. It uses a modular teaching platform for its 30 academic credit unit degree. Modules may be a small as one academic credit (15 direct student-professor contact hours). Each is taught by a University of Arizona Graduate College approved faculty member with eight faculty currently teaching in the MS-GIST program. They come from the School of Geography and Development as well as adjunct faculty who work in the professional GIS community in Arizona. A sequence of 16 modules are currently taught including: Introduction to Geographic Information Science; Geodatabase; Python Programing; ESRI’s Model Builder; Spatial Analysis – Vector; Spatial Analysis – Raster; Mobile GIS and Open Source Web Mapping; Spatial Statistics and Geoda; ArcServer and ArcSDE; Geoprocessing; Web GIS; GIS Project Management and Geovisualization; Remote Sensing; LiDAR; Master’s Project; Professional Development. Modular teaching is adaptive. It allows for fast integration of new science, and technological and industrial changes. It provides an integrative and focused experience that is not often gained in higher education. New modules are built, adapted and move to the best timing within the program. They are sequences to build on what was learned in previous modules as student advance through the program. Applied projects and professional development requirements are interspersed throughout the curriculum at key times to test student learning, challenge student skills, advance critical thinking, and sharpen professionalism. As needed, new modules are introduced and the best, most relevant and useful modules are integrated into the program while other modules can be shed quickly.

What made/makes it “masters” level?

What makes this MS-GIST a master’s level program is related to the subject matter and the emphasis on professional development. While some of the subject matter introduces general scientific principles related GIS, most of it focuses on graduate level work. The curriculum emphasizes professional development and recognizes the fact that simply obtaining a degree will not get you employment. Its underlying pedagogic philosophy centres on professional education. This is expressed both by having subject matter focused on professional applications and problems and by integrating the development of professional business skills that can aide a student in finding employment upon graduation. In other words, what occurs during graduate school outside of class and how students engage with others during the course is just as important as the subject matter being taught. This perspective builds on research carried out in geography as part of the Association of American Geographers EDGE project (AAG 2013) including that by Solem 2008 which emphasized that employers express a strong need for general skills including public speaking, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, time management, teamwork and more. The approach also draws on an industry competency model created by the United States Department of Labor designed to "promote an understanding of the skill sets" that are "essential to educate and train a globally competitive workforce" (DOL 2013). The geospatial technology competency model is shaped like a pyramid with foundational skills at the base (personal effectiveness, academic and workplace competencies), followed by technical skills (industry-wide, industry-sector), and management and occupational specific skills at the top. Skills obtained through higher education predominately fall within academic and industry levels. What has not been emphasized in traditional master’s level education are the non-academic foundational skills. The MS-GIST emphasizes these skills through an internships, professional events, networking activities, and conference attendance. Where all graduate GIS programs seek to be the best through staying current on GIS science and technology, the MS-GIST goes one step further by also being at the forefront of graduate education.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others? 

The integrated modular education is different from a traditional U.S. Master’s education model which involves separate courses and commonly a capstone research thesis. The challenge in implementing the new approach remains making university policies related to faculty workload and course scheduling work for this pedagogic model.

Where to next - in terms of mastersness – if anywhere?

The emphasis on professional education and development can only be required within assigned course units. The importance of extracurricular program activities can only be stressed but not required. Assessment outcomes (program/student/faculty) must equally emphasize normative practices (what should be taught and are we doing a good job teaching it) and professional ones (job placement, industrial feedback about program).


  • Association of American Geographers (2013). "Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education in Geography,", last accessed, 27 February 2013.
  • Solem, M., Cheung, I., Schlemper, M (2008). "Skills in Professional Geography: An Assessment of Workforce Needs and Expectations," Professional Geographer 60(3): 356-373.
  • Department of Labor (2013). "Competency Models," Careeronestop: Pathways to Career Success,, Last accessed, 27 February 2013.

Chris Lukinbeal, and Janice Monk,
School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona, P.O. Box 210076 Tucson, AZ 85721