Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

College of Behavioral and Social Sciences

What is the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) major?

The fields of GIS (a computer technology that manages and analyzes different forms of digital geographic data) and remote sensing (the science of obtaining geographic information from aircraft and satellites), have revolutionized traditional map making by improving visualizations of geographic information in a multimedia environment (t3D, web maps, and dynamic visualizations).

The application of GIS can be a tool to tackle global issues such as food security, urban planning, military intelligence, international development, or natural disasters. Students majoring in Geographic Information Science gain the technical skills needed to acquire, manage, and analyze large amounts of spatial data. The major also goes beyond the techniques for gathering and analyzing data by providing an understanding of the environmental and social processes contexts in which geographic data is used.

What are the interests of students who major in GIS?

One of geography's strengths is its ability to integrate ideas about human behavior and the natural environment. Students in the GIS major can combine their interests in computational topics and see how these skills can be applied in a broad range of subjects. Geography is a unique discipline as it offers the chance to learn about different phenomena from multiple perspectives. Many geographers specialize in a particular part of the world. The faculty members in Geographical Sciences conduct research in the US and all over the world, including Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and more.


Students take course work in the fundamentals of handling digital geographic data in GIS, visualizing and mapping geospatial data, geospatial databases, geospatial programming, geospatial analysis and statistics, and digital imagery and remote sensing observations, using software such as ArcGIS, ENVI, and open source platforms.

What are the possible jobs opportunities for students with a GIS degree?

The sample career titles below provide some examples of positions that GIS students are qualified for based on their major coursework, co-curricular activities, and internships. GIS majors work in many different areas including physical, environmental, economic, geospatial intelligence, urban planning among others. Visit https://geog.umd.edu/content/other-resources for a more comprehensive list.

Examples of positions:

The sample list below includes employers who have hired UMD Geographical Sciences undergraduates:

  • American Red Cross National Headquarters
  • Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI)
  • IBM
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission
  • Montgomery County Maryland Department of Permitting Services
  • Northrup Grumman
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • U.S. Federal Government (NASA, NOAA, Census Bureau, DOD [NGA, CIA, FBI, NSA], National Park Service, etc.)

Additionally, the Association of American Geographers collects information regarding careers in Geography: http://www.aag.org/cs/where_geographers_work

What is the day-to-day work of a GIS graduate?

Most students apply the skills they learn to real life situations. For example, someone who works for the US Census Bureau will use GIS to analyze demographic data collected by this Agency and create maps and other geo-visualizations using census data. Employees at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) use GIS to make maps used by mariners as they navigate US waterways and view remotely sensed imagery to research sea level rise, sea surface temperatures, and more. The Association of American Geographers Jobs & Careers page contains profiles of geographers who use GIS, which details the daily lives and responsibilities of Geographers in a variety of jobs: http://www.aag.org/careerprofiles.

What are the lower level requirements of the GIS major?

The first required Geography courses include Geography of Environmental Systems (GEOG201/211), Introduction to Human Geography (GEOG 202), and Career Development for GEOG, GIS, and ENSP Majors (GEOG212). Elementary Calculus I (MATH120, MATH140 or MATH130).

How is math applied to the major?

Elementary Calculus I is important for both the analytic thinking and problem solving skills necessary to succeed in GIS. Math skills also provide students the background needed to apply statistical spatial analysis to global issues.

What are the strengths of students in this major?

Students who excel in GIS are able to think critically and solve problems using creative solutions, possess quantitative reasoning skills, enjoy learning about emerging technology, and strive to stay at the forefront of technological development. Students are interested in issues such as poverty and disparities, sustainability, and environmental conservation. GIS majors like to design and interpret maps and satellite imagery, and are “big picture” thinkers.

What are the some of the experiences GIS students often have prior to college?

Google Earth and ArcGIS Explorer or ArcGIS Online are wonderful free platforms that introduce working with geographic data. Introductory programming courses that involve learning languages such as Python, or using platforms such as R, are helpful (but not required).

What is cyber security?

There are increased threats to our society and organizations from hacking and it is important that the information systems we use daily are designed in such a way that protects against these threats. The field of cyber security is broad and includes many different topics, and GIS can play numerous roles with respect to this field.

How does a GI major prepare to work in cybersecurity?

GIS is a vital part of the world’s cybersecurity strategy as businesses and government authorities do their best to win the war against cybercrime. (Source: http://gis.usc.edu/msp-resources/articles-blogs/gis-and-cybersecurity/) Students in the GIS Major learn about programming and software development as well as geospatial databases and spatial analysis. This provides an excellent foundation upon which they can build if they desire to go further in the field of cybersecurity.

For example, the geospatial component of data commonly needs protection (e.g., security of customer addresses), or cybersecurity threats may need to be tracked over space-time in order to understand the geospatial pattern of intrusions and undertake an analysis of these patterns.

What is Data Science?

Spatial Data Science (SDS) centers on applying computational techniques for automatically discovering or learning spatial knowledge from big datasets, and explaining spatial patterns of natural and human activities based on this learned knowledge. The principals of SDS are taught to GIS Majors and opportunities for learning how to compute using big geospatial data are available for students who wish to get this experience. The Geographical Sciences computing resources includes opportunities for getting hands on experience with big data computing and data science techniques.

Do GIS majors work as data scientists? (What kinds of jobs?)

GIS majors can go on to data science careers, such as Urban Planners, Community Developers, Geospatial Analysts, and more. SDS can be applied widely to many areas, for example smart city and transportation, urban and regional planning, and sustainable development.

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