Infrastructure

‘Real Essence’ of Geography Ed. Is Online, Experts Say

By Michelle R. Davis — April 02, 2008 3 min read

There was a time, not long ago, when geography students leafed through tattered, out-of-date fact sheets showing population numbers or other data as part of their classwork. These days, K-12 students have the same access as high-level government officials to large amounts of cutting-edge data on countries all over the world.

“A fifth grader in Topeka, if he or she knows how to use the Web, has the same access to that data that major governments have,” says Stephen F. Cunha, the director of the California Geographic Alliance and a professor of geography at Humboldt State University. “Students and parents and teachers can work with the same data that the secretary of state is working with. It’s incredibly cool.”

New technology on the Internet—from geographic-information systems (or GIS) to create-your-own-map programs—is allowing teachers to tap into students’ own interests and show them that geography is much more than filling in country names on a photocopied map. “It brings them into the world community,” Cunha says. “It makes the flat map come alive.”

Instead of reading about the developing world and the fact that people have to live on a dollar a day in some places, students can see video and pictures and read local newspapers from those areas. Many geography-related Web sites are GIS-based and allow students to layer information on maps to look at everything from environmental data to crime statistics, says Judith K. Bock, a teaching consultant for geography education who helped found the Illinois Geographic Alliance.

The new technology and its availability “absolutely attracts students more” to the study of geography, she says.

Jan Smith, the president of the Washington-based National Council for Geographic Education, says today’s students want more than a static map. “The students I work with want the ‘gee wowwie’ things,” she says. “When we used to fill out the flat map, students saw the world as static, and all geographers know the world is really a dynamic, changing place. The new, visual nature of geography and specialized data are attracting students.”

Tailoring Maps

What’s more, teachers with new geography technologies can tailor maps to fit student interests. For example, Smith says, for environmentally conscious students, some sites will allow teachers to build maps showing country size based on contributions of greenhouse gases. “The U.S. and Japan are enormous, and countries in Africa are really, really tiny,” she says, referring to the contribution of greenhouse gases to pollution of the environment.

The National Geographic Web site is a key place for teachers and students to find geography-related material that piques their interest. But younger students may want to stop at National Geographic’s kids site. There, they can play interactive geography games that challenge them to memorize continents and countries and go on timed missions to locate different countries, says Michelle Sullivan, the executive producer of National Geographic Kids Digital Media.

Much of the site’s school traffic, Sullivan says, is through its videos on a variety of topics, including geography.

The only drawback to the flood of current geography-related information available on the Web may be teachers who aren’t technology-savvy, Bock says.

“Some are resistant to even using technology, and you have to get out there and practice and look for Web sites, and create the lesson plans to go along with that,” she says.

But the technology is a boon to most teacher and students, Cunha says. “The real essence of geography is where people live and how they interact, the goods and services that flow around the world,” he says. “You can track all these things on the Web now.”

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