Faculty Feature: Creating Colorado’s First Undergraduate GIS Certificate Program
In 1987, Dave Skiles took a leap of faith and transitioned from his career as a research engineer with Gates Energy (and previously, the Bureau of Reclamation) to work with one of the first commercial geographic information systems (GIS) products. He developed a systems integration startup from the ground up, traveling between international business centers and customer locations. “The experience got me inspired,” Dave says. “I began to understand the possibilities of GIS and see its capacity.”
A Pioneering Opportunity in GIS
His career launched from there. In 1993, Dave got a call from a former colleague who needed a project manager for the redevelopment of the former Stapleton International Airport into a housing community. Dave’s job? Create a GIS land-use, decision-support system—later dubbed Smart Places. “It was a pioneering opportunity because decision-support systems did not exist in GIS before then,” Dave says. “I built a prototype that helped all of these stakeholders figure out how to convert eight square miles of airport into residences for 20,000 people considering many factors.” That experience led Dave into his next role building web-based enterprise GIS systems for John F. Kennedy and Los Angeles International Airports.
From ESRI to FRCC
In the early 2000s, Dave was working for ESRI, a GIS software company, as a professional services manager. He had accumulated deep industry experience and much respect from colleagues around the world, but something was missing. “I explored the idea of teaching because I started to discover that it wasn’t about me anymore—I wanted to help other people achieve the same types of things I had achieved,” he says. He heard from a colleague that FRCC’s Boulder County Campus was hiring a part-time GIS instructor, and raised his hand immediately.
A Real-World GIS Training Program
From 2005 to 2011, Dave taught part time while continuing to consult for organizations like Sun Microsystems. Along with Linda Curran, Boulder County Campus vice president, Dave helped build the GIS certificate program into a real-world program that brings GIS professionals into the classroom. Early on, the GIS certificate attracted a dozen students at most. Today, there are nearly 130 full- and part-time students and five GIS instructors—all of whom have professional GIS experience—and the program has become a signature certificate at FRCC. In 2011, Dave joined FRCC full time and became the GIS program coordinator. He continues to consult in the summer to “to stay on top of changes in the business.”
Rapid Growth and a Solid Reputation
The GIS certificate program attracts a wide range of students—from high school graduates to highly educated professionals who have been laid off. Thanks to dramatic industry growth and the program’s strong reputation, approximately 85 percent of Dave’s students land jobs when they complete the program at “who’s who” employers such as ESRI, Digital Globe, and Science Applications International Corporation. “I’m very proud of that,” says Dave. “I talk to every single student about their expectations and how I can help them.”
FRCC enjoys a competitive advantage as well, Dave says. Currently, there are no undergraduate GIS certificate programs in Colorado and just two graduate certificates at the University of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver.
An Eye on the Future
Dave says his primary goal with the GIS program isn’t about job placement or accolades. “My priority is to be a good steward,” he says. “Our growth is driven by the economic wave in GIS, and I know we’ll have to adapt to changes in the marketplace down the road. I’ll stay on top of it and redirect accordingly, because I want to make the student experience the best.”
A Stimulating Classroom Environment
In the classroom, Dave strives to create a stimulating environment in which everyone learns from one another. “Being a good teacher means bringing enthusiasm and a sense of purpose,” he says. “You let those two things combine into their own unique chemistry that inspires students to be what they can be. There’s a certain spirit about student achievement that I enjoy.”