IGARSS 2008 Brought In The Next Generation

IGARSS co-chair Dr. John Kerekes (right, in sport coat) surrounded by IPY Earth observers at Elizabeth City State University exhibit.

IGARSS co-chair Dr. John Kerekes (right, in sport coat) surrounded by IPY Earth observers at Elizabeth City State University exhibit.

“Remote Sensing: The Next Generation” proved to be as forward looking as the technology and innovation it showcased. The 1742 registered conferees, and nearly 300 guests who participated in the 27th annual International Geosciences and Remote Sensing Symposium held July 6-11 in Boston included children, college students and young professionals, all with their own targeted programming to develop their enthusiasm for Earth science and technology.

Dr. John Kerekes, general co-chair of IGARSS, said the planners wanted to recognize the celebrated excellence of Boston’s (and surrounding communities) 50 colleges and universities. “Boston is a university town, so there is a lot of forward thinking here,” he said. “We wanted to pick up on that.”

Now of Rochester Institute of Technology, he formerly worked in MIT’s Lincoln Lab and knows Boston’s academic culture well. But when he left Cambridge in 2004, he wanted a locally-based partnership so he was joined by Dr. Eric Miller of Tufts University. Kerekes acknowledged that the success of this year’s IGARSS is attributed to the tremendous amount of work of scores of volunteers, including the 20 members of the IGARSS2008 planning committee.

In addition to incorporating Boston’s academic culture into the program, he said the planning committee also recognized that many who attend IGARSS are families with a couple of members, and that they travel long distances to attend. So, a “family-friendly” series of activities was planned.

The planning committee invited Dr. Barry Rock, the founder of Forest Watch at University of New Hampshire, which involves hundreds of middle school students to record carbon levels in white pines, and Dr. Linda Hayden, professor of mathematics and computer science and director of the Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research (CERSER) at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, to serve as the outreach co-chairs. “We gave them the opportunity and they ran with it,” Kerekes said. “They put together an exciting program. My own children participated. We set up a special registration for under 18. They got a badge and were admitted to the exhibit hall and the sessions.”

Hayden said, “Expanding on the long standing commitment of GRSS to education, the 2008 local organizing committee extended exposure to the world of remote sensing to include both the pre-college community in the Boston area and to the family members of attendees. It is my hope that organizers of future IGARSS Conferences will continue the practice of embracing and nurturing the next generation of remote sensing researchers within the United States and internationally. Congratulations to the local organizing committee and to the GRSS ADCOM”

The outreach for children in grades K-12 included a “Behind the Scenes” tour of the Boston Museum of Science, a “Mathematics and Remote Sensing” team competition, and a “find and ask the scientist” scavenger hunt. There were also a career reception attended by 90 college students and four business recruiting presentations, and a luncheon for young professionals who shared a meal and conversation with senior professionals.

For Boston teacher and summer school director, Iole Pizzola, the IGARSS outreach was something of a miracle. Boston Public Schools entirely lack a science curriculum for elementary grades, and very little funding for summer enrichment field trips, she said. But thanks to Hayden’s faxed invitation, she and a half dozen counselors led 35 children aged six to twelve to the science museum and through the conference exhibition hall activities where they did the scavenger hunt and decorated mouse pads.

The college students who attended were also wowed.

Matt Mclinden, a UMass Amherst student employee at NASA Goddard Space Center, said, “This experience, starting with Goddard, has made all the difference in the world. I liked math, so I became an engineer. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I am really thrilled that engineering Earth observations can make a difference. This conference is great. I’ve listened to workshops and looked at the posters. I can really see what’s going on.”

Harish Vedantham, a second year master’s degree student in the microwave remote sensing lab and Mike Shuster, a junior in electrical engineering, both at UMass Amherst, went to the conference because it was about what they do, and it was close by. “I think everybody who works in our lab came,” Vedantham said.

Patrina Bly, rising sophomore at Elizabeth City State University, says she chose a math major because she loves it and is good at it. She plans to teach after graduation, but not for long. “I don’t really know what I want to do. This is my little thinking period. Maybe this conference will help.” She was one of about 20 students from ECSU, who traveled to the conference by bus.

Christina Luus, University of Waterloo in Ontario, a master’s degree candidate in geography, attended the conference to learn as much as she could about remote sensing. “I’m getting a good start on my thesis on vegetation in the Canadian arctic,” she said. “I’m really interested in climate change.”

Charles Luther, an independent consultant, is an administrative committee member of the Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society. He said the society has an “an interest in increasing the number of minorities, bringing minority students to the society and putting them through the full paces of generating an abstract, having their abstracts reviewed by experts, and, if they pass muster, providing them with funds to attend an IGARSS conference. “If it’s an international conference, they have to write a 3-page paper and present it orally. It then gets published in the conference proceedings.” He said seven students attended IGARSS 2008 through GRSS.

Their professors took their mission seriously, too.

Malcolm LeCompte, an Elizabeth City State University associate professor of mathematics and computer science, teaches remote sensing at the graduate level in the applied math master’s program. He also does research involving undergraduate/graduate students in temperature measurement of the polar ice sheets. That’s his day job. At IGARSS he ran an exhibit for ECSU to explain remote sensing to a younger pre-college generation and attract them to science and technology. “Aside from that, I have the chance to interact with colleagues and develop research collaborations,” he said.

And that is the greater beauty of IGARSS, says Kerekes. It’s not just the hundreds of formal presentations, symposia, panels and posters; it’s the informal networking, the conversations in the halls. “You can’t do that by email,” he says.

Next year – Cape Town, South Africa.

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