The U.S. Electoral College, soccer, and water supplies don’t seem to have much in common.
But two geography faculty members at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs hope to connect such disparate topics with elementary, middle, and high school students, en route to improving student learning about the world that surrounds them.
Steve Jennings, associate professor, Geography and Environmental Studies, and Rebecca Theobald, assistant professor adjoint, Geography and Environmental Studies, recently received a $114,000 grant from the National Geographic Society’s Education Foundation to reinvigorate geography education in Colorado But neither plans to revert to posting maps on boards and demanding youngsters name countries and rivers by rote memorization.
“Our daily lives are filled with geography lessons,” Jennings said. “Our goal is to create an integrated approach so that geography becomes part of the curriculum.”
Geography as a core subject in U.S. schools has faded from popularity in recent years. As a result, only one in ten American adults, age 18-24, could find Afghanistan on a map of Asia, according to a 2006 survey. A 2002 poll indicated that of nine major countries, the population of the United States ranked eighth in geographic knowledge.
“This isn’t about being able to find a country on a map,” Jennings explained. “Geography is about understanding the world we live in.”
As the new coordinators for the Colorado Geographic Alliance, Jennings and Theobald hope to expand the consortium of geographers and teachers, to share ideas about infusing geography into K-12 curriculum, providing teachers with new tools to excite their students. Theobald has an office at Galileo School of Math and Science, a Colorado Springs School District 11 magnet school. She will be surrounded by potential geographers and have the opportunity to test ideas and concepts.
For Jennings and Theobald, they hope to use existing student interests and connect them to geography.
“Tracing the powerhouses in soccer, and the spread of soccer across the globe, is a fascinating geography lesson,” Theobald explained. “By using soccer and other activities and events immediate to students, we think we can connect lessons and provide a variety of fun activities.”
Theobald rattles off ideas like the hyperactive middle schoolers who surround her. She talks about maps as big as a basketball court and trivia contests at halftimes of school games to build geography knowledge before shifting to career opportunities that will exist for students who study geography.
“Geospatial technologies such as GIS and opportunities in environmental fields provide a range of choices for using geographic knowledge,” Theobald said. “Our challenge is to make people aware that geography studies can open those doors.”
Jennings and Theobald led the first of several professional development workshops for teachers, the “Geography of Elections” on Nov. 15. They hope teachers will use the recent presidential election to help their students to understand how geography affects the Electoral College and voting patterns.
“If you want to understand politics, you have to understand geography,” Jennings said.
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs located on Austin Bluffs Parkway in Colorado Springs, is the fastest growing university in Colorado, and one of the fastest growing universities in the nation. The University offers 30 bachelor’s degrees, 19 master’s and four doctoral degrees. The campus enrolls about 8,000 students annually.