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NGA’s solution for stemming the Geodesy Crisis

NGA’s solution for stemming the Geodesy Crisis

“If we don’t quadruple the number of [GEOINT] STEM students that we graduate in the next 15 years we will lose the war for brains to China,” says NGA Senior GEOINT Authority for Geomatics J.N. “Nikki” Markiel Ph.D., “It truly is a matter of national security, it is imperative that we, the U.S., dramatically increase the number of [STEM] graduates now”. 

For the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency this disparity in STEM students between the U.S. and our strategic adversaries presents a particular snag, as geodesic sciences are suffering the same fate as other STEM programs, but at an even steeper level.

According to a January 2022 white paper authored by Ohio State University professor Michael Bevis Ph.D., on the “Geodesy Crisis”; “China now has more geodesists than the rest of the world combined, and its numerical advantage continues to grow. During this time period, the largest national decline (worldwide) in geodetic research and training capacity has occurred in the U.S.”

In 2019 the Associate Director of the USGS, wrote “The USGS shares the concerns expressed by both the NGA and the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) that the candidate pool of trained geodesists eligible to work for Quasigovernment agencies is currently inadequate to support our missions in the future”.

A major hurdle in deepening the pool of geomatics graduates is that among educators and students - even among college STEM students - few are familiar with the series of standards concerned with the collection, distribution, storage, analysis, processing and presentation of geographic data known as geodesy, or geomatics. 

Marlie Mollett, one of NGA’s newest geomatics department recruits, and University of Missouri-St. Louis graduate, explains that she had gone through nearly an entire collegiate physics program, wholly unaware geodesy was a STEM subset.

It wasn’t until Mollett participated in an NGA, UMSL Cooperative Research and Development Agreement research opportunity to study, and present a project on the use of Artificial Intelligence in gravity mapping, that she discovered geodesic science.

“It’s a branding problem,” says Mollett.

Seeking Solutions

Meeting the goal of increasing STEM graduates, and overcoming the geodesic science marketing and branding recruitment issues, has spurred NGA to enter into an assembly of strategic contracts and partnership agreements, designed to create a pipeline of future geodesists, like Mollett.

Beavis states in the whitepaper that “external research partnerships will help NGA overcome its shortage of geodesists”. Currently, NGA St. Louis has Educational Partnership Agreements with UMSL and Harris-Stowe State University. 

Unlike previous contracts, or agreement mechanisms, these EPAs allow NGA to engage with academic partners that may not have existing capabilities in Geographic Information Systems or geospatial sciences in general, to provide curriculum and program development, and help support and prepare faculty and students for research and careers in geospatial fields, to develop the skills NGA is seeking for accomplishing NGA strategic goals. 

A Partnership Intermediary Agreement with NGA’s unclassified innovation center Moonshot Labs, and St. Louis based technology entrepreneur center T-Rex, allows NGA to collaborate with industry, and conduct outreach programs to introduce college and K-12 students and educators to GEOINT in an innovative and engaging manner.

Geomatics Emerging Scientist Consortium for Education, Research and Capabilities Enhancement [GEO-ESCON] is a contract devised to achieve a congressionally directed action of advancing geomatics tradecraft. It is designed to bring together the nation’s best and brightest geomatics scientists and research institutions.


Jessie Bleile, NGA’s visiting professor of practice to University of Missouri St. Louis, and Harris Stowe State University, discusses programs and tactics with NGA counterparts. (Photo by NGA Office of Corporate Communications)
Jessie Bleile, NGA’s visiting professor of practice to University of Missouri St. Louis, and Harris Stowe State University, discusses programs and tactics with NGA counterparts. (Photo by NGA Office of Corporate Communications)

Through the EPA, NGA’s Jessie Bleile serves as a visiting professor of practice at UMSL and HSSU on behalf of NGA. “I’ve been supporting HSSU since January 2022, and UMSL since January 2023,” says Bleile. “Prior to my roles directly supporting these two institutions, I served as an academic outreach officer in the NGA analysis tradecraft programs office for just over two years.”

Prior to the EPA neither HSSU, nor UMSL had existing GIS, geospatial science or geodesy academic programs, but with NGA’s support through the EPAs, both universities are finding their niche.

HSSU is focused on developing a GEOINT certificate, and UMSL is focused on building out GIS and remote sensing curriculums, as well as incorporating geodesy courses with a geophysics emphasis area into their physics department. Through her role with HSSU and UMSL, Bleile is effecting changes in curriculum development, and implementation, creating impactful, sustainable change into the future, but it is also imperative to her “that NGA and the universities figure out a way to engage current students and faculty now, while concurrently building out the long-term curriculum.”

An early success of NGA’s EPA with HSSU is the four-week undergraduate research experience called the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Summer Immersion in GEOINT Program, held for the first time in the summer of 2022. HSSU invited undergraduate students from HBCUs around the country to come to St. Louis, stay on HSSU’s campus, learn about the geospatial industry in St. Louis, and work on a geospatial project. 

This inaugural program hosted eight students; four from Harris-Stowe and four from other HBCUs throughout the U.S. The program provided students training opportunities, mentorship, and engagements with local government, industry, and overviews and engagements with NGA personnel and mission sets.

Within weeks, students went from no previous exposure to geospatial technology, or the concept of GEOINT, to presenting their analytic research results on coastal erosion of four African countries, to NGA Deputy Director Tonya Wilkerson, NGA seniors, and subject matter experts. “The experience throughout the immersion program was amazing, said Trena Harris, an HSSU student, and Immersion program participant, “I learned so many valuable skills and techniques that I will utilize throughout my future endeavors.”

Harris, and a group of Summer Immersion students, continued doing geospatial research, and presented their undergraduate research projects at the 2022 Saint louis University Geo-Resolution conference, which focused on predicting, and mitigating effects of climate change. Currently, Harris is on track for an internship at NGA St. Louis in the summer 2023, and the Immersion Program is on target for its second iteration, with a goal of fifteen students. 


NGA Geodetic Scientist Dawn King, Ph.D., explains how Geoscience and AI Application Lab (GAIA), was formed out of the Partner Intermediary Agreement (PIA) with T-Rex (Photo by NGA Office of Corporate Communications)
NGA Geodetic Scientist Dawn King, Ph.D., explains how Geoscience and AI Application Lab (GAIA), was formed out of the Partner Intermediary Agreement (PIA) with T-Rex (Photo by NGA Office of Corporate Communications)

NGA Geodetic Earth Scientist Dawn King Ph.D., is the lead in development of the Geoscience and AI Application Lab, which was formed out of the PIA with T-Rex, and is focused on developing solutions to some of NGA’s hardest mission-related problems through academic student research opportunities. This PIA utilizes a partnership with NGA’s Moonshot labs, and St. Louis based innovation center, T-Rex to help with external, community-based partnerships. Through the PIA, NGA funds students work, and kicked-off this academic-style research lab, providing student participants a year-long research opportunity, working directly on NGA unclassified, mission-related projects.

“Much of [NGA’s] science is not classified, it’s only our specific use of the science that makes it classified,” reminds Dr. King. Current GAIA Labs projects are AI-gravity, AI for crustal magnetism, and automating security and building containers for modeling needs, with additional physics-informed AI projects kicking off in FY24. 

At present, NGA GAIA Lab Scientists mentors five undergraduate student researchers and one undergraduate student, whom are presenting posters at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation GEOINT Symposium, being held May 22–24, in St. Louis. “We hope to grow additional cross-division collaborations and to increase the student pool to 10 undergraduate students participating from several local universities by the end of fiscal year 2023,” says King.

Long-term goals are to build a sustainable undergraduate research pipeline with local universities, and to incorporate graduate student researchers working on doctorate-level projects relevant to mission-related needs. “In five years, I would like the GAIA Lab to become an application-based program open to all academic students in relevant STEM fields,” says King.

UMSL’s involvement in the PIA through the T-Rex partnership have already paid off with Mollett, who joined the AI-gravity project beginning her junior year as a physics major at UMSL through a CRADA. Mollett officially joined NGA as an intern in May 2022, where she continued to help build what is now known as GAIA Lab, and in late November 2022 she officially became a full-time NGA employee. “Marlie has basically become my right-hand in leading the GAIA Lab, and mentoring the student projects,” King says of Mollett.

The GAIA students are receiving recognition, and presenting work at a variety of venues, including NASA Missouri Space Grant Consortium, Missouri State Legislature, St. Louis Area Working Group and GEOINT Symposium. King notes that the genesis of the EPA with UMSL was derived by mutual necessity, because UMSL physics faculty wanted to save a dying physics program, and NGA needs geophysics specialists for geodesy, which requires a specific academic curriculum.

“We truly have an opportunity to build something from scratch, together,” says King.


Melanie Bick Ph.D., former NGA Mission Imperative Lead explains what Geomatics Emerging Scientist Consortium (GEO-ESCON) for Education, Research, and Capabilities Enhancement is, and how it works.  (Photo by NGA Corporate Communications)
Melanie Bick Ph.D., former NGA Mission Imperative Lead explains what Geomatics Emerging Scientist Consortium (GEO-ESCON) for Education, Research, and Capabilities Enhancement is, and how it works. (Photo by NGA Corporate Communications)

Melanie Bick Ph.D., retired U.S. Army military intelligence officer, and former NGA Mission Imperative Lead to increase Geomatics Bench Strength, has been a driving force in NGA geomatics effort to rebuild, preserve, and advance the geomatics tradecraft through her leadership of GEO-ESCON. Of all of the NGA responses to the geodetic crisis, GEO-ESCON is the broadest, building capability through collaboration with academic institutions and sharing open educational resources within local academic communities. Currently GEO-ESCON members include the nation’s top geomatics programs, such as those at Ohio State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Purdue University, Oregon State, University of Florida, UMSL, St. Louis University, and more… and the list is growing.  

The number of success stories of those participating under GEO-ESCON also continues to grow. “We have had eight students participating in the Emerging Scientist Program and one NOAA student who is completing his master’s now,” says Bick. GEO-ESCON is a significant part of NGA’s response to a national crisis in geodetic sciences and capabilities. 

The Way Ahead

Markiel echoes what Mollett believes, saying, “we do not have a STEM problem, nor a geospatial problem, we have a marketing problem.” Markiel points out that addressing the crisis in geodesy requires an innovative approach, “to de-mystify STEM and engage, excite, and enable students and adults on a holistic basis.”  “Why don’t kids go into STEM?  They think it’s boring, or they don’t know it exists.”

About the NGA approach Markiel states, “I can’t tell you if any of these [programs] are going to work, but I do know that what we have been doing for the past 20 years has not worked”. The strategy that NGA is taking, Markiel says, is a crawl, walk, run approach, and the programs are “currently in the crawl stage, but, they are resonating”.

“The walk stage is to proliferate the programs throughout the nation, and see if they pollinate,” says Markiel”.

“We must support the preservation of STEM, geomatics programming, education, and training in order to maintain our edge over U.S. adversaries,” says Bick.

For NGA, Bleile, King, Mollett and Bick are leading the way in addressing the ‘Geodesy Crisis’ and Markiel believes, “they are doing absolutely great, taking these programs from concept to reality…Couldn’t be prouder!”