The Department of GIS & Remote Sensing grew out of the old Department of Surveying at UFH in the mid 1990's. The number of students registering for a Degree in Surveying had declined to an unacceptable and unsustainable level, and the switch to GIS & Remote Sensing was an attempt to rescue the situation. However, GIS and Remote Sensing were now listed as subjects in the curriculum, but the Department of Survey consisted of a group of students with no lecturers or facilities to teach these two subjects. These students took it upon themselves to approach and negotiate with UFH Management for the resolution of the problem, and we are proud of the fact that the result really was a department created by the students for the students. It was also an opportunity to establish and grow the first fully fledged GIS & Remote Sensing Department in the country.
In the late 1990's, a Grahamstown-based GIS Consultancy, Geospatial and Remote Sensing Services (GRS cc), was approached to undertake the teaching of the GIS & Remote Sensing curriculum on a contractual basis. Through strong commitment and dedication, the GRS staff members, have expanded the department and academic programmes enormously over the next few years. The Undergraduate Programme was revamped to suit the needs of the workplace, and those of the students, and was accredited by SAQA for Second and Third Year modules in 1998 (commencing 1999). It should be noted that the Undergraduate Programme does not offer a First Year module yet, and students do a generic First Year BSc, with CSC100, and GEG100 or GLG100 as prerequisites for GIS200.
This Undergrad Programme was a first for South African HEIs, and very rare around the world, as it offered students the advantaged of graduating with a BSc Degree majoring in GIS (as one of the dual major BSc Degree in the Faculty of Science & Agriculture). Due to the unique opportunity, it is not surprising that student numbers increased at a phenomenal rate. Registration of new Second Year students increased from about 15 students in 1999 to 45 in 2001, and peaked at 110 in 2003. Unfortunately, this growth rate was unsustainable due to the impact of such a large number of students on the extremely limited existing resources. At that stage, resources to teach a computer-based subject consisted of only a small undergrad lab (max. 40-50 seating capacity) and only 16 computers. Therefore, statistics show a dramatic drop in student numbers from 2004, as the department had to restrict or 'cap' the intake of Second Year students from that year onwards.
The maximum number for new registrations for the GIS200 modules was set at 50. Yet, even with strict criteria for admissibility into GIS200, numbers could realistically only be capped at about 60 students. Therefore, there were still about 100+ registered students since 2004 (Second and Third Year combined). Our throughput rate was also very encouraging over the initial period, and at the 2005 Graduation Ceremony, 41% of all BSc graduates (i.e. 43 of the total 104), graduated with GIS as one of the two majors in the BSc Degree.
In addition to the Undergraduate Programme, a Postgraduate Programme consisting of a BSc Honours and MSc in Applied Remote Sensing & GIS was developed, and approved by SAQA. These were successfully implemented in 2002 and 2003 respectively. As with the Undergraduate Programme, the Postgraduate Programme has been successful and has proved itself by the increase in the numbers of students registering for the various modules. Even more importantly, the Honours graduates have made a name for themselves as being amongst the best qualified in the country, and are highly sought-after by various employers in both Governmental and Private Sectors. It is envisaged to start on with the accreditation process of a PhD Programme soon, as our research capacity has been developed and requirements from graduates have increased to acceptable levels to make this viable.
The fact that the department was never capitalized to procure the specialist equipment needed for a computer-based subject such as GIS and Remote Sensing, has always been the biggest impeding factor in growing the department to the best it could be. In 2006, a 10-year strategic plan was submitted to UFH Management, outlining the department's commitment to address the disproportion of the facilities and resources as compared to the number of students. The result of this plan came into fruition in 2015, with completion of the construction of a brand new building to house the department, and cater for the various specified needs in the Under- and Postgrad Programmes.
There are now two specialized teaching labs with appropriate layouts for the teaching and learning development strategies envisaged for the next few years. The lab layouts allow for the teaching of GIS and Remote Sensing, with GIS and Remote Sensing software, where we can have one student per computer during lectures, actively participating in the application of the theory during the lecture to practical problems. The aim being to yield employable graduates, ready to enter the workforce with minimal difficulty, and accustomed to the needs of our industry. It is all about giving our students that 'winning edge' over other candidates when it comes to applying for jobs.
We are still awaiting the necessary number of computers to fulfil the requirements of our initiatives, but the space are now more than adequate to cater for enrolling more students again. Initiatives to apply for funding of more specialized teaching and research equipment are ongoing. The department procured a high-tech spectrometer in 2014, which are fundamental in contemporary Remote Sensing research. Next on our 'wish list', is the procurement of an aerial data recording system and drone to assists with teaching and research in GIS.
Important to note: GIS and Remote Sensing are two of the so-called scarce skills, which make the qualification in one or both of these subjects most desirable for graduates. The Department of GIS & Remote Sensing is well-positioned to contribute to the specialized skills required for employment.
All we can say is "Watch this SPACE!" (Pun intended!!)