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2015 June 9 - 05:07 am

From Farmfields to Spreadsheets

Federal Grants Allow Students To Experience Real-World Use Of GIS Technology


Leonel Deleon may have found his calling in the fields of cotton, sorghum and corn growing in the sunbaked soil of the Texas Coastal Bend.

This spring, the Del Mar College sophomore is part of a team using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to measure the populations of pests like the verde plant bug and cotton fleahopper and produce data that helps farmers maximize their crop yield.

“It’s important because it affects people’s livelihoods,” said Deleon, 24, whose internship with Texas A&M AgriLife Research came courtesy of a grant from the U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture (USDA). “After Del Mar I may apply for a job with Agrilife just to see what it’s like to do GIS on a fulltime basis. This has changed my direction in life.”

GIS technology incorporates computer programs and data such as Global Positioning System coordinates to create maps that are used to analyze and assess realworld problems. The maps can be viewed electronically or on paper.

In South Texas, GIS is nearly synonymous with agriculture. As a result, local farmland is an ideal training ground for Del Mar GIS students who receive internships through USDA grants.

By the end of this summer, about 40 internships will have been made possible by $352,000 in USDA grants over the past four years, said Jonda Halcomb, dean of Del Mar’s Division of Arts and Sciences.

Besides agriculture, GIS technology is increasingly useful in business, marketing, marine science, urban development and other fields, Halcomb said.

“With GIS, you’re not limited to any one area. I want students to be prepared for other fields where they can add GIS to their expertise.”

Last month, in a process called ground truthing, Deleon and his colleagues went into the fields farmfields looking for insect nymphs on plants and plotting their locations on handheld GIS devices. Then, using a software program called ArcMap, they entered the data on a map indicating the number of insects in the sampling area.

“We can show this data to our clients, the farmers,” Deleon said. “They can determine how much pesticide to use and where to use it. It’s interesting to hear them talk about the insects and how destructive they are.”

The data will be especially valuable to sorghum farmers. Recently, Coastal Bend sorghum fields became the epicenter of a multi-state infestation of aphids, a pest that sucks the sap from the stems and leaves of the plant, said Mike Brewer, field crop entomologist with Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

While Del Mar’s GIS students are contributing to farmers’ productivity, the real focus of the internships is student learning, Brewer said.

“I get enthusiastic students because they’re applying their classroom instruction to a realworld problem. They’ve all been willing to get their shoes dirty, and that’s part of the selection process. It’s fair to say we work them pretty hard, but they enjoy it.”

AgriLife has hosted four interns from Del Mar over the last three years, Brewer said.

The combination of working outdoors and in an office, as well as with a team and on her own, is what Alby Cartwright enjoyed the most during her internship with AgriLife. She’s completed four GIS internships, the most recent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she researched and compiled South Texas precipitation data.

With her internship experience, a handful of GIS certifications and an associate degree from Del Mar, Cartwright, 21, plans to pursue a career in GIS after she completes her bachelor’s degree.

“Before the internships, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I wanted to do in my life,” she said. “They defined what I’m looking for.”

That type of feedback is a source of pride for her GIS instructor at Del Mar, John J. Nelson. It’s also one of the reasons he and Halcomb are willing to put the legwork into grant applications.

“These are local sons and daughters making a difference here in this area,” Nelson said. “You can really sense a feeling of accomplishment and drive from their experiences.”

GIS and technologies associated with it are evolving rapidly in South Texas’ agriculture industry. This year, Agrilife may begin using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to remotely scan farmfields for signs of damage from insect pests, Brewer said. Once those areas are identified, a person can go out for a closer inspection.

The integration of agriculture, GIS and UAVs is in its infancy, Brewer said, and Del Mar students starting internships at AgriLife this summer will be part of it.

For Halcomb and Nelson, that underscores the need for a continuing flow of grants. That way, Del Mar’s GIS students can stay on the cutting edge of technology, especially as it applies to agriculture.

“You write 10 grant applications and you’re lucky if you get two,” Nelson said. “But we do it because without grants, we wouldn’t be able to offer those internship opportunities.”

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