UofL faculty and students who study geographic information systems set aside a day this fall to hear from professionals who depend on GIS technology for mapping. They saw such map examples as the Mitt Romney presidential vote in Kentucky, recent Bullitt County train derailment, Lexington bicycle use, Kentucky tornadoes, federal election results by state and a sustainability tour of Belknap Campus.

Earlier in the semester, they dedicated the newly renovated Audwin and Rae Helton Center for Geographic Information Sciences Laboratory, which will both provide better equipment on which to learn and space for more students.

“The better the lab is, the better off I’m going to be as a GIS professional when it comes to looking for new team members,” said Audwin Helton, co-founder and president of Louisville-based Spatial Data Integrations Inc. Company co-founder and vice president Rae Helton is a longtime UofL employee who now works with the community engagement office to coordinate the university’s participation in the local 55,000 Degrees initiative to improve education attainment.

The Heltons’ donation allowed the GIS program to revamp its Lutz Hall lab with 27-inch high-definition monitors and computers with faster graphic and animation processors. It also allowed the program to increase the number of workstations. Now, instead of accommodating 15 students, it accommodates 22, said program director Robert Forbes. The revamped lab is attracting students, industrial users and people from Kentucky interested in learning the GIS technology through continuing education courses.

“The GIS lab in that department is the key to success around here for anyone in the GIS field. It all starts here for training,” Helton said. “It’s been a good kind of connection.”

Easily half of his 35-employee company came through the UofL program although not all were geography and geosciences majors, Helton said. The couple also has funded scholarships for geography and geosciences undergraduates interested in GIS.

Janet Dakan, widow of UofL geography professor Bill Dakan, started a technology fund to upgrade software used in the laboratory and department. She also was honored during the lab dedication ceremony.

“The technology itself is still an emerging technology and has implications across many majors here at UofL,” Forbes said. Beyond geography, he mentioned biology, engineering, business and justice administration as examples. “It’s so visual, so graphic.”

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Forbes said about the lab. “We’ve had an increase in students who want to come over and take a look at geography.”

Judy Hughes
Judy Hughes is a senior communications and marketing coordinator for UofL’s Office of Communications and Marketing and associate editor of UofL Magazine. She previously worked in news as a writer and editor for a daily newspaper and The Associated Press.