Geospatial intelligence students boost careers with online program

Dan Steiner served for seven years in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including leading an engineering company in combat during Operation Desert Storm. Now Steiner is hoping to improve his geospatial intelligence business through the Master of Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) program and geospatial intelligence certificate offered through Penn State World Campus. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Dan Steiner knows a thing or two about assessing terrain, gathering knowledge sources and weighing human interactions — all things required in the field of geospatial intelligence — on the fly.

The West Point graduate who served for seven years in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including leading an engineering company in combat during Operation Desert Storm, spent his life using these skills, first in the military, then for a pharmaceutical company, and currently for Orion Mapping, a geospatial intelligence business he founded three years ago.

Now, through the online Master of Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) program, he’s looking to take those skills to the next level with a master's degree and geospatial intelligence analytics certificate, offered online through Penn State World Campus in partnership with the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Department of Geography and the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.

“I see the ground. I see things with that 3-D view,” said Steiner, 55. “And I needed to have my skills upgraded with this program so that I can provide customers with exactly the info they want with the technology and legal skills to back it up.”

Steiner started the business as a way to link companies to the information they need to create and improve their businesses. His long-term goal is to secure state and federal government contracts to analyze data aimed at protecting the nation’s soft targets and resources.

“There are so many threats to our security,” Steiner said. “I feel like my background and ability to analyze problems, look at satellite imagery and connect the dots positions me to be successful.”

Steiner said he surveyed other universities, but Penn State quickly stood out as the frontrunner. It was the expertise in computer mapping, geographic information system (GIS) and fundamentals of geopolitics that intrigued him. Knowing that members of the U.S. intelligence community and businesses that support the intelligence community were among the students currently enrolled in Penn State’s program was also a plus. 

And when he talked with professors and realized they were teaching a field in which they were actively involved in both research and practice, he was sold.

“I wanted a program that was specific to geospatial intelligence and had the GIS background to it,” Steiner said. “Many universities had that but they didn’t have the faculty with the background that I’ve observed here. Penn State was saying, ‘Look at the students who are going through our program and look at their backgrounds. Look at the professors, they actually do this for a living, and they also are instructors.’ ”

Todd Bacastow, teaching professor in the Dutton e-Education Institute, fits that bill. He served in the U.S. Army in a variety of roles throughout the U.S. and Europe. He taught geography at West Point before coming to Penn State.

Bacastow, who has worked with business and government on geospatial intelligence issues, said the field is critical for everything from a business deciding where to build a store to emergency responders knowing how best to handle a crisis.

“Everything happens somewhere for some reason,” Bacastow said. “Geospatial intelligence is understanding why things happen where they do, where they might happen next, and if you are being deceived in what you think you see.”

Dennis Bellafiore, associate teaching professor in the Dutton e-Education Institute, also touted the wide-ranging applications of the field.

“The process of analysis really applies to a lot of different fields,” Bellafiore said. “For example, you have an emergency situation. You need to predict what flights people will take out. What paths they’ll take. You need to foresee that so that you can be prepared.”

Expanding careers

Others are using the program to open doors, too.

Growing up in New York, Ericka Sterns dreamed of going to Penn State as an undergraduate, but it wasn’t in the cards. So, when she looked to improve her career with a master’s degree in Homeland Security, Geospatial Intelligence option, she chose Penn State.

Sterns, who will graduate in August, is thankful for her career as a project manager for a telecommunications company, but she’s seeking a career that prominently features her GIS background and newfound geospatial intelligence skills.

She’s also excited about the future of the field.

“Geospatial Intelligence is very interesting to me because it allows me to think deeper about what could be ‘solved’ or ‘fixed’ by applying these skills,” Sterns said. “One of the other interesting pieces is that the field is forever growing and changing at the pace of technology. The improvement of mapping software, increased clarity of satellite imagery or even the techniques used to analyze data keeps this field from becoming stagnant, which creates a lot of room for individual growth.”

Justin Hoesman earned a master’s degree online in Homeland Security, Geospatial Intelligence Analytics Option last year and is pursuing a career as a special agent with the U.S. Department of Energy.

He served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a scout sniper and reconnaissance Marine with multiple combat tours. After that, he worked for the intelligence community, continuously deploying to hostile environments for more than 13 years.

Hoesman, of Pennsylvania, said the field complements his military background.

“I was drawn deeper into the field by my military experience and time working in the clandestine intelligence field,” Hoesman said.

Educational perspective

For a recent class, Hoesman, Steiner and Sterns were the student leaders of a research project comparing the U.S. geospatial intelligence field with the United Kingdom’s, another major player in the field. For 15 weeks, 10 online graduate students analyzed and gathered data on how the two players developed their fields.

The goal was for students to get a better understanding of the discipline and to note areas one country could learn from the other. A key difference noted between the two countries is that those in the U.K. are introduced to the fundamentals of geographic analysis much earlier than those in the U.S. and, therefore, might enter the profession better equipped to perform some cognitive aspects of geospatial intelligence analysis. The trio of students traveled to Washington, D.C., to present their findings to a top official at a U.S. government agency.

“The official was engaged,” Steiner said. “He listened to what we were presenting and asked really pointed questions about the differences we observed between the U.S. and U.K. geospatial intelligence communities and then asked for our recommendations. I really didn’t expect for him to ask that.”

Expounding on excellence

The U.S.-U.K. comparison was key to students better understanding a field with both a rich history and an ever-evolving future, said Bacastow and Bellafiore. Evolving is key to their successes as educators, too.

“We want to be the best at learning. We know how to teach. The real question is how do our students learn and how can we accelerate that,” Bellafiore said. “How can they learn faster by coming to Penn State? How can they learn the things that they need to know out in the workforce. The better we get at that the better our students are when they graduate. That’s really been our focus and our mantra.”

“It's all part of trying to be the best,” Bacastow said. “If our students are the best, then we’re the best. They’re the measure of our success.”

Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information about geospatial graduate programs.

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Last Updated July 12, 2021