Challenging Discipline Boundaries with LiDAR

Greetings! OSU is already 3 weeks into another quarter and our Digital Terrain Modeling (DTM) class is off to a strong start. I would like to focus my discussion this month on that course. In this class, we discuss fundamentals of laser scanning and algorithms for creating DTMs. In addition to class discussions, we have a weekly laboratory in which students collect and process LIDAR data in Leica Cyclone, program algorithms in C++, and perform spatial analysis. A forthcoming "Practitioners Forum" article in the ASCE Journal of Surveying Engineering will discuss more details of the topics covered in this course and its first offering during Winter Quarter 2010. Both last year, when I taught the course for the first time and this year, I am impressed by the students excitement and willingness to try new things in order to understand the difficult material presented.

In this course, we have an interesting mix of students from civil engineering (geomatics, transportation, and geotechnical emphasis), forestry, geography, geology, public health, and computer science. This discipline diversity is representative of the strong potential that the geomatics profession has to bring people together across traditional boundaries to solve the most challenging problems. As I work on more and more projects, the more I start to realize that most of the key challenges encountered on a project result from insufficient or inadequate data. However, no matter how much time and energy is spent on sophisticated modeling or analysis, the end result is only as good as what goes into it.

The practicing geomatics professional is always trying to get the most out of the equipment and budget available to deliver the best result and is a key player in successfully completing the project. LIDAR data is one of those geomatics tools that can provide all project stakeholders with high quality information if it is collected, processed, and used appropriately. Thus, a key focus of this course is not only to educate those geomatics professionals who will be collecting and processing the data, but also those who will be the end-users of the data (e.g. engineers and scientists).

I will admit that having such a wide range of students in the course can be a significant challenge. It can be difficult to keep things going at a fast pace for students who have more experience and yet slow enough for students who are new to the topics and need more time to digest the material. Because everyone has a different background and every department has its own flavor of teaching, it can often be challenging to present material in such a way that it makes sense to the entire class. I have my degrees in engineering, so it is easy to default to an engineering style of teaching. However, I am constantly reminded in this course that people from different disciplines have unique ways of approaching a problem, and try to address those in the course. Often, while interacting with students in the course, I learn new insights and ways of problem solving from the students.

Someone once told me that there are no disciplines in nature and disciplines are a human technique in attempting to understand the world. I do realize that as we progress in today’s world, we begin to see that it is not as easy to divide and categorize with more cross-pollination between our traditional disciplines. This is a very difficult struggle for education to be able to provide rigorous requirements uniformly to all students pursuing a specific degree and give them flexibility to take those classes which are of most interest to them and will be the most beneficial in their careers.

The general trend as people pursue advanced degrees is to narrow their focus into a specific part of their discipline and become the expert in that specific area. I had a very different experience with my educational path, which has been extremely valuable to me. As I continued my studies and research, I began to branch out further from engineering. I began to realize that the questions that I wanted to understand required me to learn a lot more than I could learn in just one discipline. So I branched out from civil engineering and geomatics to geology, oceanography, computer science, and even some art history! Fortunately my advisor, Falko Kuester (UCSD), encouraged and enabled such an approach. This did not mean I abandoned engineering, but meant that I was able to bring new tools and approaches to engineering.

I now have the opportunity to mentor students who are pursuing advanced degrees, and I give them the same advice to get out of their comfort zone, branch out to learn more about other disciplines, and learn from how they approach problems. I believe that the more ways you can think about and approach a problem, the more likely you are to obtain the best result. It is true that you probably can obtain a good result by applying an approach that you have used over and over again. This is often what we need to do in order to complete our ever increasing to-do lists. However, I think implementing new and fresh approaches to problems, when possible, is key to improving our understanding and efficiency in the long run and also to keep our work from becoming a day to day monotony.

As a final challenge to you, go out and talk to someone who does not work with what you do on a daily basis, talk about something you are working on, and see how they would approach the task!

Acknowledgements: Leica Geosystems and David Evans and Associates provided tremendous support through equipment and software for this and other geomatics courses at OSU.

About the Author

Michael Olsen

Michael Olsen ... Michael is an Assistant Professor of Geomatics in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University. He chairs the ASCE Geomatics Spatial Data Applications Committee and is on the editorial board for the ASCE Journal of Surveying Engineering. He has BS and MS degrees in Civil Engineering from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego. He has also worked as an Engineer in Training for West Valley City. His current areas of research include terrestrial laser scanning, remote sensing, GIS, geotechnical engineering, earthquake engineering, hazard mitigation, and 3D visualization. He teaches geomatics and geotechnical engineering courses at OSU where he has developed new, ground-breaking courses in Digital Terrain Modeling course and Building Information Modeling. Recent projects he has been involved with include: earthquake reconnaissance (following the American Samoa and Chile earthquakes and tsunamis), landslide analysis for the US 20 realignment, seacliff erosion mapping using LIDAR for San Diego County and Oregon, liquefaction hazard mapping for Utah, and modeling and studying historical buildings such as the Palazzo Medici and Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
Contact Michael Article List Below