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The fight to bring back Geography education

Hana Baba
Geography Bee at Mission Hills Middle School

Americans are often stereotyped as not knowing much about the rest of the world.  But, according to the numbers, it’s more than a mere stereotype. In the latest national geographic poll of geographic knowledge, American 18- to 24-year-olds place almost last, second only to Mexico.

Educators say what seems like a lack of interest in the world is really just a failure in teaching. Most of the world’s industrialized nations require world geography throughout middle and high school. But, here in the US, kids just take generic ‘social studies.’ Geography is just another elective.  Now, geographers, educators and lawmakers are  sounding the alarm that Americans cannot afford to live without a more solid knowledge of the world. The US is a major global player, and more jobs than you’d think require you to know your maps.

In Burlingame, I visit Ashlee Llewellyn.  She’s a GIS specialist for an environmental engineering firm -- GIS stands for geographic information systems.  We’re in a room with the most massive printer I have ever seen - the thing is like 10 feet long. While I wait, she prints a very large geological map she just designed of Southern California.

Then, on the computer, she shows me a different map- this one of a plot of land up for redevelopment here in the Bay Area. She took the soil samples on this site about a month ago, then turned her findings into a graphic layer on the map, with markers to show where the soil is contaminated, and how deep in the ground the pollution goes.

If it had a concentration noted by the lab,” she says, “it’s colored. So you can see - at one foot it’s really dark, so they have high concentrations of hydrocarbons...”

It’s geography meets geology meets technology. Llewellyn is a geography grad, and says her skill set is in demand. GIS specialists can make between 50 to 70 thousand dollars a year. For geoscientists, the median is 90 thousand a year. Llewellyn says she owned a house before age 30 in Santa Rosa on her own. “ It’s more than a livable wage,” she says, “ I would say I have a comfortable lifestyle.”

Now, maybe Llewellyn’s work sounds a little too specialized for you. But the work of geographers is everywhere.

The map and design the GPS devices and apps we use every day. Companies like Google and Yahoo hire GIS specialists. The military needs them for strategic planning. Commercial real estate planners hire them to decide where to build stores. Transportation departments, city and environmental planning departments - all  are in need of geographers. But they’re hard to find, because most U.S. Schools don’t seriously teach geography.

A number of major US universities shut down their geography programs after the 1960s, though some are coming back.  As for K-12, every state has some geography content standards, but only about 19 require them in middle school, and only six in high school. California is not one of them. So at schools in this state, geography needs a champion.

At Mission Hills Middle School in Union City, that champion is teacher Lata Nigam.  She grew up in India, and says, geography was a subject that was taught at every grade level, from 6 through 12.

She found it strange that it wasn’t taught in the U.S. So she decided to start teaching it herself - not just teaching geography, but also bringing the National Geographic Bee to the school.

In the multi-purpose room, ten students grades 5-8 are up on stage, taking turns answering geography questions. The Bee is a yearly competition that tests kids on their geography knowledge. 103 California schools competed this year, including Mission Hills. Today’s winner will go on to represent the school at the state finals.

And the questions aren’t easy. One contestant is asked, “Beaufort and Hilton Head Island are located in a region known as the Low Country in what state that borders Georgia?” The child answers  South Carolina- a correct answer. The child is visibly relieved amidst the cheering of the excited room full of students, parents and teachers.  

Art teacher Andrea Liptac sits next to Nigam at the Bee, at a desk facing the contestants. They’re the judges. Liptac also is a geography lover and says the subject is especially important here because of how diverse the student body is.  “We have a big mix of cultures here- we like to talk about where we came from,” she says,  “we like to talk about the beautiful places, the cultural practices, the holidays, the families, the art- everything.The kids are really discovering who they are, and so that cultural conversation is just huge. It comes up all the time.”

Another tough question comes up.  “The Skagerak waterway separates Norway from what peninsular country to south?”, Liptack asks. The contestant answers Sweden- a wrong answer. The answer is Denmark.

This students in this room are excited. But Liptac says that’s not as common as she’d like. This is a private school. In many public schools, teachers don’t always to teach geography as a stand alone subject -- because students aren’t tested on it.

Natalie Wojinski is a teacher consultant with the California Geographic Alliance, a group that works with National Geographic and advocates for geography education in schools. She says, under No Child Left Behind the social sciences really took a beating, because there was such a push for reading and math in particular.”

Standardized testing, she says,  focuses on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Add to that big classes,  low pay, and high stress, and teachers say they just can’t add more to their plate- to Wojinski’s frustration.

That’s why she helps schools develop geography programs. She argues, it’s part of basic literacy.  “Everything can kind of flow from a study of geography,” she say,  “‘It's learning about society and politics, the environment, history. And the land that we live on, and our planet!

In 2013, Wojinski joined a group of geographers, educators, and lawmakers that lobbied Congress for geography education funding. It got some support, but not enough to keep it alive. This year, the group got another chance: No Child Left Behind, now called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is up for renewal. An early draft included a proposed grant to fund social studies programs. But it focused on history and civics -- . Not geography.  To Wojinsky and her colleagues, that was a harsh blow.  But they continued to lobby.

Geography teacher Lata Nigam says geography needs a makeover. She says it should be part of the STEM curriculums that are so popular now - Science Technology Engineering and Math. That’s how students will get those GIS jobs.

Nigam says, “learning about mountains, you know, valleys even learning about glacial topography,  space, how the roads are made, statistics planning, earthquakes, volcanoes,   planets- I don't know why they don't think of it as a science because it IS a science!”

This idea is catching on. More and more schools are teaching GIS- hi tech mapping and data analysis. Leading GIS software maker Ezra donated  a billion dollars of mapping software to schools nationwide. And, a company called Zombie-Based Learning created a curriculum to quote, ‘bring geography back from the dead’ -- using a graphic novel about a zombie apocalypse. California Geographic Alliance's Wojinski says a science and tech makeover for geography is fine, but she worries that something important will be lost. Human geography. Learning about people and their cultures.

“My hope,” she says,  “would be that students would view themselves more as citizens of the world. And if we view ourselves as part of all of humanity we can help solve the problems rather than say now that's 'that somebody’s problem over there. They're on the other side of the ocean that's not going to affect me'. I don't want to lose that at the expense of saying it's STEM.’

Here’s another reason for Wojinski and the geographers to be optimistic. Remember that No Child Left Behind social studies funding? The group’s continued lobbying eventually worked, and geography is now part of the new education funding bill which the U.S. Senate approved on July 16, 2015.

Speaking of victories, after a grueling hour, time for the final deciding question at the Mission Hills Middle School Geography Bee. Two students battle it out.

The question:  The Suburu community is south of Lake Turkana in which African Country?

The crowd sits very still. The first student guesses Tanzania. It’s wrong. The second student guesses Kenya. A correct answer by 8th grader Isaiah Bayardo who moves on to the next level to compete with more than 100 students from around the state. He says he doesn’t know yet what he wants to study in college, but he likes geography alot. The way things are going, maybe it will be something he can do for his career.

  • Take a Nat Geo quiz to test your geography chops here!

Crosscurrents Education
Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.