GEOG 481
Topographic Mapping with Lidar

Welcome to GEOG 481 - Topographic Mapping with Lidar


Quick Facts

  • Instructor(s): Karl Heidemann

  • Prerequisite(s): 480 (or equivalent professional experience). It is expected that students are conversant in fundamental concepts of GIS and have hands-on experience with ArcGIS Pro. The following bullets are examples of knowledge and skills you should have before starting this course.

    • explain the concept of map scale
    • explain the concept of a map projection
    • describe the difference between a vector and a raster data set
    • explain the difference between an Esri SHP file and a feature class
    • explain the difference between a 2D and 3D SHP file or feature class
    • manage GIS data files in the Esri interface
    • access data management, data conversion, and data analysis tools in the Esri interface
    • add a vector data layer to a project file
    • add a raster data layer to a project file
    • create a new SHP file or feature class
    • edit a SHP file or feature class using the Editor toolbar
    • change symbols for a SHP file or feature dataset using Symbology Properties
    • view and edit the attribute table for a SHP file, feature class, or raster layer


GEOG 481 is an introduction to Light Detection and Ranging (lidar) systems for topographic mapping and GIS applications. This course assumes that students have prior knowledge and experience in mapping and GIS. Students who successfully complete GEOG 481 will be able to apply knowledge about airborne topographic lidar mapping systems, processing of lidar data, and lidar-derived data products to a variety of GIS application scenarios. They will be able to describe methods used to georeference and classify these data using commercially available software tools in order to produce digital terrain models and other GIS-ready data products. Finally, students will each develop a final project of their own design, demonstrating their ability to apply their new skills to a real-world situation of personal or professional interest.

Course overview video (1min, 32sec)

Click here for a transcript of the instructor video.

I'm Karen Schuckman and I teach topographic mapping with lidar. Lidar is one of the most interesting and popular forms of GIS data available today because it's a very rich three-dimensional dense point cloud that shows us representations of terrain building features and so on. Along with the richness of lidar data, there's also increased complexity in terms of the data format, the way that it's classified, and the ability of various software packages to be able to import it and use it effectively.

This course is really important because it gives students insight into how lidar systems operate and how the data is processed to produce useful information such as, topographic maps and tree canopy studies. In the course, you'll get a lot of step-by-step instructions about how to use lidar data, but you'll also have an opportunity to actually work with data of your own choosing in an application that's of interest to you. Students have done projects such as understanding shoreline change after Hurricane in coastal areas, looking for archaeological evidence of Indian mounds, and also estimating solar potential by studying building rooftops in an urban environment.</p>

These are just a few examples. The possibilities are endless. Take this course and explore some ways to use lidar data in an application that's of interest to you!

Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Meet Karl Heidemann (1:12)

Click here for a transcript of the instructor video.

Hello. I'm Karl Heidemann, one of the Lidar science instructors in the Penn State online geography program. Interestingly, my first career was as a stage lighting designer. I believe that my affinity for three-dimensional modeling in that environment ultimately led to 3D modeling with Lidar. My Lidar career began about 20 years ago while the technology was still in its formative stages. Initially I focused on product development, process automation, later shifting into writing standards and specifications for both the ASPRS and the USGS. I now focus primarily on teaching. Lidar has always been fascinating to me with a wealth of information still undiscovered within the point clouds. I hope that I can instill my students with a similar passion for Lidar and a desire to continue exploring this ever-developing technology.

Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Want to join us? Students who register for this Penn State course gain access to assignments and instructor feedback and earn academic credit. For more information, visit Penn State's Online Geospatial Education Program website. Official course descriptions and curricular details can be reviewed in the University Bulletin.

Course Author Introduction

Karen Schuckman

Karen Schuckman

Karen Schuckman is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State University, teaching remote sensing and geospatial technology in the online programs offered by the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute. She has been teaching at Penn State since 2007, prior to which she worked extensively in private industry as a photogrammetrist and GIS consultant. She also serves as a Program Manager for the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS).

As the Geospatial Technology Leader at URS from 2005 - 2006, Karen supported response, recovery and mitigation projects following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. From 1995 - 2005, she was with the EarthData group (now Fugro EarthData), where she held several positions including geospatial applications director for EarthData Solutions, senior vice-president of EarthData Technologies, and president and general manager of EarthData International of North Carolina. Notable projects led by Ms. Schuckman for EarthData include lidar acquisition for the North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program, numerous transportation mapping projects for state DOT's, and technology demonstration projects for NOAA, NASA and the US Department of Transportation.

Prior to joining the private sector, Karen worked for the USGS National Mapping Division in Menlo Park, California. She has served as President of the ASPRS from 2005-2006, vice-chair of the NOAA Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES), member of the National Research Council's Committee on Floodplain Mapping Technologies and the Committee on FEMA Flood Maps. She is an ASPRS Certified Photogrammetrist (CP), an ASPRS Certified Mapping Scientist-Lidar, a Professional Land Surveyor (PLS) licensed in North Carolina and Virginia, and she also holds a BS degree in Meteorology and a Masters in Geographic Information Systems from Penn State University.

Karen attended Penn State as an undergraduate and was a member of the Women's Gymnastics Team from 1974 - 1979, winning individual national championships in All-Around, Floor Exercise, and Vaulting, and was Penn State's first female All-American athlete. She is married to former Southern Illinois University gymnast, Mark Davis, and lives in Centre Hall, PA.

Meet Karen Schuckman (2:15)

Click here for a transcript of the meet the instructor video.

I'm Karen Schuckman and I'm the lead faculty for the Remote Sensing and Earth Observation Certificate Program at Penn State. And these are my friends, Isabella, and Harley. And horses are really an important part of my story about how I became a photogrammetrist and ended up being an instructor here at Penn State.

When I was in high school, I was an Olympic gymnast and a National Merit scholar. I had a lot of choices about where to go to school, although at that time there were no scholarships or varsity gymnastics in college for women. Thanks Isabella.

So I came, I did come to school here, I was actually a meteorology major, and I learned to ride horses, not far from here over in the Oak Hall Quarry. I moved to California at a certain point and lived outside of Fresno and to make a long story short, ended up owning a small horse ranch with harness racing horses. And I was just a horse trainer and a mom at the time. And there was an accident on our farm that sort of caused me to do a reality check on my professional life.

And at the local university, Cal State Fresno, they happened to have a really good program in their civil engineering department that included surveying and photogrammetry. I worked in private industry and surveying mapping for almost 20 years and reached a point in my life where I decided I was ready to do something a little bit different.

Part of the reason I came to teach at Penn State is because of my love for this area and the landscapes. We're actually standing in my front yard right in front of my home office. So not only am I using this area as a way of teaching you about remote sensing, but I'm also able to communicate my real appreciation and love for the beauty of the landscape here in central Pennsylvania. So here I am, and I hope to stay here for a long time to come and get to meet many of you as you become my students.

Credit: Karen Schuckman © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0