Regional
3:30 pm
Wed February 29, 2012

NMSU Geographer Works To Improve Geography Instruction In New Mexico Schools

With a little seed money, a New Mexico State University geographer plans to build a statewide alliance that will grow to change the way teachers educate and children learn in elementary and secondary schools across New Mexico.

The National Geographic Society's National Geographic Education Foundation has awarded NMSU $32,000 to help educate children from kindergarten through 12th grade about geography. The New Mexico Geographic Alliance will become part of a network of fifty such alliances whose collective mission is to improve geographic education throughout the United States.

Americans' knowledge of geography is considerably below that of many other nations. Lee Schwartz, who holds the title of "The Geographer" for the U.S. Department of State, considers this geographic ignorance a major national security risk. Despite its importance, geography is seldom taught as a standalone subject in most elementary and secondary schools across the nation. 

Geography is not simply the memorization of geographic places and their capitals, although you could think of that as the vocabulary of the discipline. Instead, geography is a very complex integration of concepts and ideas about the earth that enable geographers to understand the patterns of population, food, economic conditions, climate, natural resources, energy resources, military and other risks, and many more. 

Today's Geographic Information Systems are a direct outgrowth of 2,500 years of geographic analysis. The GIS enables both geographers and non-geographers to compile and analyze all of this geographic knowledge for decision-making. Despite their complexity the ideas of GIS, when adapted, can be integrated into elementary and secondary education. 

"Research has shown that one of the most powerful tools to teach critical thinking is Geographic Information Systems," said Michael DeMers, a professor in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Geography. "With this endeavor, we are going to use the concepts and ideas of GIS to create problem-based learning experiences that students can relate to. Because they are engaged, they will learn more than they would normally."

DeMers said he wants to bring more technology and online education and activities into the classroom that will be fun for the students. They will be designed to foster critical thinking and creativity, and to get children to start thinking about the world around them from the angle of spatial awareness.

"Our idea is to create something so exciting, so compelling, that every teacher in the state is going to want to be a part of this because it will make their classes so much more fun," he said.

In its infant stage, DeMers, along with his NMSU team of Randy Carr, a GIS coordinator with the Department of Geography's Spatial Applications and Research Center Lab; and Julia Parra, an assistant professor in the College of Extended Learning and the College of Education; are working to reach out to educators and the public statewide to gain support for this effort, and to gather ideas and feedback. DeMers has already received an offer of assistance from Esri, a leader in GIS software, which has developed established GIS curricula for grade school children that can be incorporated into NMSU's plan.

In three years, DeMers said his goal is to start bringing educators in New Mexico to NMSU to learn how to teach GIS and online education as well as how to teach geography using such devices such as iPads. He wants educators to acquire both geography skills as well as technological skills related to teaching using educational computer games and activities they can then incorporate into their classrooms while still satisfying educational standards. Teachers who have gone through the training would return the following year to assist in educating the next generation of educators.

Programs created through the foundation are designed to become self sufficient over time. In recent years GIS has been classified as one of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs by the National Science Foundation and other agencies opening a new suite of possibilities for the Department of Geography to pursue funding opportunities to further this project.

This acknowledgement of GIS as a STEM discipline also means, "We are going high tech. We want to be the one alliance that everybody else looks at and says, 'Wow! Look at what they're doing. They are doing GIS for kindergarteners.'" DeMers said.

This does not mean teachers are doing away with brick and mortar, but DeMers said he believes the future of education is online and that if students are more positively engaged and challenged in school, they will be more interested in participating and less likely to drop out before graduation. The return on this investment is lifelong geographic education, DeMers said, that will continue to grow and expand over time.

"Years from now, I want to be sitting here in my office and have a student come in - 17 or 18 years old, and a freshman in college - who says, 'Dr. DeMers, I see you have 12 courses in GIS. Can I test out of those? I had that in fifth grade.' That is what I want," DeMers said. " I would say, 'Thank you. I'm done. I can retire now.'"