Geography students find route to Juneau

Two new geography degrees at UAS expected to open opportunities

Posted: Friday, July 24, 2009

The University of Alaska Southeast is mapping a way to a stronger academic program for the Juneau school.

Courtesy Cariann Drake
Courtesy Cariann Drake

To get there, the university's faculty are taking the staid field of geography out of the classroom, and into Southeast Alaska's environment through two new degree programs.

"Geography can be almost anything, said Eran Hood, an associate professor of environmental science who is spearheading the new degree offerings at UAS.

In Juneau, the two new degrees, a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science, are associated with the school's environmental science program.

The University of Alaska Board of Regents approved the two new degrees last month. They'll complement four geography degrees already offered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the state's flagship school.

The degrees will use existing classes in environmental science, as well as environmentally oriented classes in biology, social science and humanities, and student research projects, Hood said.

That will broaden where students can go with their education, he said.

"Up until this point there has been a real gap between environmental science and everything else which is not science," Hood said.

The new programs fit well into the school's mission of providing Alaskans with an education they can use in Alaska industries, while the current environmental sciences students mostly go on to graduate school.

Future employment in high-demand jobs in the natural resource field is a key goal of the new degree programs. Hood said they'll prepare students for jobs in fishing, timber, oil and gas, mining, tourism and teaching.

Some students who already had been in environmental science but were looking to move to a school with a broader program are expected to stay in Juneau to study geography.

Some of those students have been working with Hood as he researches snow hydrology on the glaciers near the university's Auke Lake campus, but he expects to attract new students to Juneau as well.

Hood said both the regents and the UAS administration were happy to see the program expand, as long as they could see the demand.

"If you are boosting enrollment, they're happy to help you grow the program," he said.

Juneau got help with its expansion from Fairbanks, which already has a strong geography program, Hood said.

Fairbanks wanted to take its program statewide and be able to offer more regional options for its students, said Mike Sfraga, director of the University of Alaska Geography Program.

"If any state in the nation should have a great geography program, it's Alaska - but I'm probably biased," Sfraga said.

Classes in geography at the two campuses are interchangeable, offering opportunities for students in the two schools to move back and forth and giving them two dramatically different landscapes to chose from.

"You can come to Alaska and have options at both campuses; that's a novel way of recruiting," Sfraga said.

Looking to get the geography program going in Juneau, Sfraga found an enthusiastic local supporter in Hood, who happened to have a doctorate degree in geography himself and knew that most of the pieces were already there.

"My pitch to the Board of Regents and the administration here was, 'Right off the bat we don't need any new faculty,'" he said.

Not only were the faculty skills already there, but so was a crucial geographic information systems lab, which would be expensive to create from nothing.

Sfraga said the petroleum industry has been seeking out students with GIS training, and is competing with other industries for recent graduates.

"GIS is hot right now. If you have GIS (experience) you will be hired," he said.

Hood said the new degrees are expected to be able to be offered by spring, but they're working now to make it into this year's course catalog.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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