A Well-Positioned Department

The University of Calgary Geomatics Engineering Department was launched in 1979. After 25 years – and a lot creative marketing, fundraising and recruiting – there’s much worth celebrating.

Freelance Writer


Now and Then - Top: the first graduating class; bottom: a graphic look at the department’s growth.

The Department of Geomatics Engineering at the University of Calgary has become the largest and arguably finest program of its kind in the world, turning its home city into the geomatics centre of Canada – all in a mere 25 years of existence.

As one of only three such departments in Canada, it boasts 160 undergraduate students, 85 graduate students and 19 faculty members. Its $4 million a year in research funding includes contracts with energy, agriculture and defence industries.

Graduates of the department land jobs and faculty positions around the world, and it’s easy to see why. At a prestigious annual conference in the U.S. on global positioning systems, for example, the department’s graduate students routinely win half the student paper awards – despite stiff competition from schools like Stanford and MIT.

Not an Easy Road
Still, there were a few times when it looked like the Department of Geomatics Engineering wouldn’t be around to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The troubles started with trying to lure engineering undergraduates to this new department, which was initially called Surveying Engineering. At a presentation to attract first-year engineering students, only a handful of students showed up, compared with perhaps 100 for other engineering disciplines.

To fill empty classrooms, the first department head, Dr. Ed Krakiwsky, P.Eng., had to heavily recruit surveying students from technical schools across Western Canada, plus convince U of C administrators to give them a year’s credit for transferring.

Another early challenge was the lack of funding for the graduate program. Without such a program, it would have been almost impossible to attract top faculty members, let alone undertake research. Only a frantic, $2-million fundraising program allowed the department to achieve full status in 1986.



Name Change Succeeds
Even after the department was well established, another crisis emerged in the early 1990, when enrolment plummeted. “Although surveying is a noble profession, young people weren’t turned on by the tag of surveying and mapping,” says Dr. Krakiwsky, now professor emeritus.

So following a survey of students, the department name was changed to Geomatics Engineering to reflect the high-tech changes in this burgeoning field. The marketing approach paid immediate dividends, with enrolment doubling the following year.

Today, there are two applicants for every student admitted to the undergraduate program.

“After that crisis, the demand for graduates in the new, high-tech geomatics industry also shot up like an arrow,” says former department head Dr. Gérard Lachapelle, P.Eng. “Now, it’s rare if all our graduates don’t have a job offer by June.”

The primary reason the program started, survived and finally thrived was vision.

It began in the mid-1970s with a call by Alberta’s surveying and mapping industry for a university-level education and research program, especially to serve offshore and other petroleum exploration, which had already embraced satellite-based methods. “The knowledge base to operate these new methods and instruments required a university-level program,” says Dr. Krakiwsky.

“By having it as an engineering program from the outset, it allowed us to provide strong fundamentals and an engineering discipline,” says current department head Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, P.Eng., the first Faculty of Engineering recipient of the prestigious NSERC Steacie Fellowship Award. “The common core studies are the same as those of the other engineering departments at the U of C.”

The provincial government also had the vision to earmark $5 million for the new department, which from the outset was allowed to operate independently, even though it started life under the wing of the Department of Civil Engineering. “We were fortunate that, unlike most surveying programs in the U.S., we could operate independently with our own vision,” says Dr. Krakiwsky.

Attracting Top Faculty
Most of all, Dr. Krakiwsky had the vision to attract the best faculty and students he could find worldwide. “My pitch to prospective faculty members was simple: ‘Do you want to join the team and build the best survey engineering department in the world?’ That way, we only got brave, confident people willing to work 12-hour days.”

He sought people who were both top researchers and excellent teachers. Based on the rather novel idea that students were the department’s customers, he also pioneered the concept of students evaluating their professors.
“ You’re asking graduate students to spend the best five or six years of their lives in your department. If you’re not providing a superior environment and the best possible product, you’re not doing your job.”

Today, the department has little trouble attracting the best and brightest from around the world. The current faculty includes professors from France, Holland, Germany, Spain, Indonesia, Greece and Egypt.

The department also lures many international graduate students as well as top local talent, who upon graduation find jobs with surveying and mapping, wireless and navigation, and Silicon Valley companies; government agencies; and Canadian and U.S. defence departments.

It’s no surprise, then, that the department and its steady stream of high-end graduates have helped Calgary become Canada’s dominant geomatics centre.

Growing Expertise
Under the leadership of Dr. Krakiwsky and his successor as department head, Dr. Klaus Peter Schwarz, early research efforts focused on gravity, positioning, statistical analysis, photogrammetry and high-precision engineering surveys. Subsequent expertise has also been developed in remote sensing, cadastral studies, geospatial information systems, digital imaging and integrated systems.

The combined licensing revenues from all this research amount to $10 million to date.

While gravity research – led by professor and associate department head Dr. Michael Sideris, P.Eng. – has become a major department strength, global positioning is perhaps the preeminent research focus, involving six faculty members and some 40 graduate students.

“ It’s one of the top groups of its kind worldwide,” says Dr. Lachapelle, CRC/iCORE Chair in Wireless Location. The group has done considerable ground-breaking work with energy firms, the agriculture industry, the military and any other sector that requires precise positioning data.

For example, U of C researchers are working with the U.S. Navy to help land aircraft on sea-tossed carriers within centimetres of their target.

“In this business, we’re always looking for more accuracy,” says Dr. Cannon. “Accuracy is addictive.”

In late October, the Department of Geomatics Engineering will pause to celebrate its considerable accomplishments in a mere 25 years. It will commemorate the event in typical fashion – by raising $120,000 for three undergraduate scholarships.

On Oct. 28, the department will host a celebration banquet, and on Oct. 29, an open house.

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