With more and more businesses and researchers utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing, the demand for students with backgrounds in geospatial technology has never been greater.

To ensure that a generation of Hokies can make their mark on the future, Assistant Professor Santosh Rijal of the College of Natural Resources and Environment is helping students from an array of majors gain an understanding of the concepts, applications, and systems that drive geographic information science.

“Geospatial technology has a wide scope,” explained Rijal, a faculty member in the Department of Geography. “It is used in many disciplines, from national security and intelligence, to the analysis of emergency preparedness, to figuring out how to best use natural resources. The technologies are used by scientists to measure how the climate is changing and by businesses looking to understand their customers better. It has become an essential part of our lives.”

Department Chair Tom Crawford says that Rijal’s extensive knowledge of GIS and remote sensing is an important factor in his ability to reach students.

“Santosh is a key instructor in the delivery of the department’s geospatial program,” Crawford said. “He is an expert in the high-demand field of geospatial technology, with an impressive ability to explain complex STEM topics in ways that really connect with students. The geography department has long been a campus leader in geospatial technology, and the addition of Rijal in 2017 adds to this strength and touches many students across campus.”

Because the range of applications for geospatial technology is broad, Rijal’s classes have students from majors as diverse as engineering, life sciences, political science, criminology, and economics. To meet this challenge, Rijal encourages group projects throughout the semester, where students are tasked with collaborating toward a common goal.

“In one project, students download different sets of GIS data to determine where on a city map they should develop a recreation park,” Rijal explained. “They have to work together to consider different variables, to better understand the impacts of different decisions.”

Grace Warne, a senior majoring in meteorology, noted that Rijal’s commitment to connecting with students makes a difference.

“I enjoyed taking his remote sensing class because the labs were interactive and engaging,” Warne said. “Dr. Rijal was always there to help us with questions and was very patient and understanding. He always made himself accessible for help with projects, and his knowledge of GIS made me really appreciate the class.”

Rijal explained that group projects provide students with critical training for entering the workforce, while broadening their base of knowledge.

“My students have the chance to communicate with one another,” said Rijal. “They get to share their knowledge about geography or meteorology or engineering, and the ways that GIS impacts their field. They can take that practice and carry it into their careers.”

Rijal’s research background includes using geospatial technology to measure how military installations impact land conditions. He is continuing that research, with a focus on permafrost vulnerability in the polar region.

“Permafrost degradation can have heavy impacts on the region, its infrastructure, and the lives of the people there,” Rijal noted. “I’d like to develop a real-time dynamic monitoring system for permafrost vulnerability, by combining multisource and multiscale remote sensing data.”

That said, Rijal’s primary focus at Virginia Tech is teaching students the foundations and applications of GIS and remote sensing, an area where he excels.

“Dr. Rijal is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the chance to work with,” said Pabitra Aryal, a second-year doctoral student in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “He is very resourceful in his field of expertise and expressly passionate about teaching and helping students to understand the materials properly.”

Rijal is optimistic that Virginia Tech can take a leading role at bringing students into the field.

“I believe geospatial science has a bright future here,” he said. “A lot of organizations are looking for people with backgrounds in GIS and remote sensing, and they are offering jobs that are high-paying and challenging. I’m excited to see us expand our opportunities in geospatial technology, and I look forward to being involved in the next steps we take.”

Written by David Fleming