University of Vermont

University Communications

Students Pocket Cool Million at UVM Lab

Lab
At UVM's Spatial Analysis Lab, student employees have earned over $1 million in wages in the last five years. (Photo: Sally McCay)

The University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Lab reached a milestone late last month. The lab – which provides Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, services to customers around the country – crossed the $1 million threshold in wages paid over the last five years to the UVM students who worked there.

“It’s a significant accomplishment,” said Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, director of the lab, known as the SAL. “The lab is both giving students an important learning experience that will help them with their careers and helping them defray college expenses.” 

The financial resources to pay students in the SAL rarely come from traditional sources, like the university or the federal government, O’Neil-Dunne said. They are generated by the lab’s paying customers – and therefore represent an additional source of student financial support that many other schools do not offer.

Most of the SAL’s work focuses on helping cities and towns accurately assess the tree canopy in their community, a research program the university developed in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. Increasingly, cities are seeking to manage their tree cover, because urban trees are now known to provide a variety of benefits, from improving air quality to reducing flooding and water pollution to reducing temperature during the hot summer months.

More than 80 cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, have hired the SAL to assess their urban tree canopy using imagery acquired from planes and satellites. The cities are using this information for a variety of purposes from helping set tree canopy goals to targeting areas for new tree plantings.

The student work takes a variety of forms, said O’Neil-Dunne. Entry level students primarily do quality control, combing through GIS data to make sure the mapping of objects, like trees or building, is accurate, based on the imagery. Experienced students can become team leaders, training new students and coordinating student teams. Students with the most experience do analysis and write reports.

“It’s serious work,” O’Neil-Dunne said. “They have a budget to manage and a timeline to meet.”  

Students working in the SAL earn $10 an hour at the outset and $12 an hour and above if they take on management and analysis roles.

Nancy Mathews, dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, said the career preparation the SAL provides students is unusual.

“The opportunity for students to grow and learn about geospatial practices through the SAL is unparalleled on our campus and many others,” she said. “Students gain direct experience tackling diverse applications for a wide range of agencies. There can be no better skill building to help prepare them for their careers in the environment and natural resources.”

Their experience working in the SAL has helped recent UVM graduates land jobs at firms like Apple, Google, Esri, Mapbox and AECOM.

Thanks in part to the work she did at the SAL, 2016 graduate Alison Peek was hired as a GIS technician at Apple Computer to enhance and validate mapping data, the Anthropology major and Geospatial Systems minor said.  

“The experience that I had at the SAL was similar to the actual work I was going to do at Apple,” she says, and was a key factor in the company’s decision to hire her. 

“My current career path was heavily influenced by a professor who hired me on when I was an undergraduate,” said O’Neill-Dunne. “It gives me great pleasure to know that we are helping communities chart a greener future while at the same time developing the next generation of GIS professionals.”