As far as summer jobs go, spending a few days on a boat gliding across the pristine waters of Lake Okoboji isn’t too bad.

That’s where University of Northern Iowa senior Lindsey Hubbell found herself, thanks to her job at GeoTREE, a center in the Department of Geography that carries out real world projects gathering and mapping data for local governments, tourism bureaus, research center and more, giving students practical experience in the booming field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

In Hubell’s case, she was using GeoTREE’s 360 degree camera - six lenses encased in a sphere that can take comprehensive photos of an area - to document the lake’s shore for display on Google Street View. In some cases, Hubell had to strap the camera to a bicycle helmet and take to a kayak to photograph the lake’s narrow canals.

“In the end, I’ll be able to pull up the app and show my friends, ‘hey, that's me. I took those pictures.’ So I think it's pretty cool,” said Hubbell, an Environmental Resource Management major from Pocahontas who is pursuing a certificate in GIS in the geography department.

And Hubell’s work in Okoboji was just one of  a variety of projects carried out under the eye of John DeGroote, instructor of geography and director of the center

“We try to give our undergraduate students and some graduate students opportunities to work on these real world projects,” DeGroote said. “It also makes them quite marketable when they go out and graduate.” 

The center recently finished an Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship project that was a collaboration between UNI Geography, including the Iowa Low Altitude Remote Sensing lab, and the UNI Tallgrass Prairie Center. GeoTREE students and prairie center Americorps members developed a variety of interactive virtual digital resources to tell the story of the Tallgrass Prairie Center and the benefits of prairie using 360° cameras, drones and GIS mapping techniques. The project published about 200 photos to Street View, generating more than 180,000 views so far, an interactive outreach/education web mapping application and a Google Earth Voyager virtual tour of different prairie restoration projects.

DeGroote and his students also worked with the Cedar Trails Partnership to publish 3,800 photos on Google Street View of the area’s hard and soft bike trails and water trails. So far, the images have racked up hundreds of thousands of views.

Finally, GeoTREE will be working on a pilot project with Visual Communication and Interactive Digital Studies Bettina Fabos and her students called Main Street 360. Fabos’ students will be geolocating historical campus photos and working with Geography students to create exact 360 degree matches for those photos, taken from the exact same perspective of the original photographer. 

“We will be stitching together these 360 degree views so that a user can go back in time and experience UNI's campus in a certain decade and the historical buildings will pop up in view,” Fabos said. “So, it'll be like a Google Street View experience with historical photos overlaid on the original background.”

The project is part of Fortepan Iowa, a curated archive of historical photos taken by ordinary Iowans over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

In the past, GeoTREE and its students have completed projects assessing the accessibility in rural and urban areas to hospital and home medical equipment suppliers, investigated patterns of tick distributions and Lyme disease incidence in Iowa and built a database of impervious surfaces, such as roads and sidewalks, for the city of Madison, Wisconsin that will be used for decades to come.

DeGroote said the increasing importance of data cataloging and collection has caused the value of GIS skills, which provide the ability to capture and analyze spatial and geographic data, to skyrocket. UNI’s GIS major has a 100% job placement rate and alums who have worked in GeoTREE have gone to work for local, state and federal government agencies and companies such as Google and ESRI, the leading supplier of GIS software, web GIS and geodatabase management applications. 

Hubbell said the usefulness of GIS skills in the job market are what led her to pursue her certificate in GIS.

“It's a really valuable, hard skill that is more employable for people,” Hubbell said. 

Hubbell came to UNI because she said the campus “felt like a place that I could call home.” During her time on campus, she said she benefitted from close, one-on-one relationships with her teachers, such as DeGroote. who took time out of their day to help her succeed.

“If there's anything that I don't understand, or something that I want to learn, you know, I can always go to (DeGroote),” Hubbell said. “It’s great to have that learning experience with him.”

Hubbell said she hopes to turn her GIS skills into a career in sustainability in a government agency or nonprofit. She was driven to this path when she took a gap year in school and served in Americorps, where Hubbell completed environmental projects and disaster relief efforts through the southeast US. 

“It  made me realize how important the environment is and sustainability work is something I could pursue for the rest of my life and feel satisfied,” Hubbell said.

Elsewhere this summer, another project the center completed was creating visual maps on Google Maps from the 360 degree camera of local landmarks, such as the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, for the Cedar Falls Tourism & Visitors Bureau.

Campbell Hoffmana summer 2021 GIS graduate who has worked with GeoTREE for the past year, was part of that team.

“It’s a great way for students to do some real world work," said Hoffman. "It’s a paid experience and a job that’s flexible during the school year and in the summer. It’s fun, gets you to places around town and outside.” 

In all, over 7,000 photos have been produced and published by UNI students onto Google Street View. Photos of UNI’s campus, local trails, state parks and more now have over three million views since publication. 

Alanna Byrnes also contributed to this story.