Fun with GIS #97: 25 Years of Geography Awareness

In summer 1986, at an institute for geography teachers in Minnesota, I “found religion.” I met 30 local educators who also loved geography and wanted to do an ever better job teaching it. In summer 1987, I “found my voice,” during a teacher institute at National Geographic Society headquarters in DC. In these two summers, I learned to be proud I was a geographer, to proclaim its power with stentorian voice, and to help others become geographic thinkers.

We talked about the abyss of geographic knowledge and thinking, among students and adults. US Senator Bill Bradley (NJ) came in to talk about how important it was for everyone to understand why geography matters, and how we missionaries could help. We learned there would be an official proclamation for Geography Awareness Week, and met the staffer who had penned the words and helped secure congressional signatures. How exciting!

So, where are we now, in this 25th Geography Awareness Week? Alas, progress has been weak. Despite global political upheavals, dramatic environmental changes spanning every continent, multi-national wars, economic turmoil, social unrest, massive technological revolution, and more, many Americans still think about geography as “states and capitals,” and worthy only scant attention in schools.

The only hope we have for survival, as a species and a planet, lies in education. Only by understanding the patterns of “what’s where,” the relationships between things here and things over there, and interaction between these things here and other things here, will we be able to improve conditions. Only with sound grasp of critical background context and vital thinking skills can our citizens and our leaders make intelligent decisions consistently. These skills and content knowledge do not appear merely by reaching adulthood. They must be built over time, through application, like a birder who integrates environment and shape and call to identify a bird, or a basketball player who knows to weave this way, fake that way, and shoot with a certain touch.

Geographic knowledge and skills can lead to unlimited careers, for sure. But they are also priceless for helping us survive, as a person, a community, a nation, a species. We ignore this at our peril. You can tell Congress to support geography education. But even if Congress chooses yet again to ignore this powerful discipline, you need to make sure it happens locally. Talk with educators, and be a mentor, locally and beyond. Help them see how easily they can engage the tools of geography, in whatever they teach. Help them to understand our world’s richness, complexity, patterns, and relationships. Help them, and help young people everywhere, have a chance at a brighter tomorrow.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

Tom Baker

About Tom Baker

Tom Baker is an Esri Education Manager, specializing in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, teacher education, and educational research. He regularly publishes and presents on geospatial technologies across education.
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  1. andymilson says:

    Well said, Charlie. I attended my first National Geographic Summer Institute in 1994 at Southwest Texas State U. My thinking about teaching geography was forever changed.

  2. randalleraymond says:

    I met Charlie Fitzpatrick at his first Trade show, NSTA – Kansas City – 1993. He had just started working with ESRI. He was demonstrating something called Arcview. It was the very first version of Arcview to view maps made in ArcInfo. I returned to his booth several times during the conference. I had just won a $25,000.00 education excellence award, so I actually had money to spend and no one to ask what I could spend it on. When I returned to Detroit I discovered that ESRI did not even have a way that an individual could purchase the ArcView 0 version software. It was intended for ArcInfo users to share their maps. It took three months and multiple phone calls to both California and Minneapolis before Tom McConnell, then with National Tech Team in Dearborn, Michigan, was able to make arrangements with ESRI to finally be able to purchase a copy of the software and not be a holder of an ArcInfo license. Since that time Charlie and the entire K-12 education team at ESRI have been my mentors. I am so glad Jack Dangermond and ESRI had the wisdom to hire Charlie and allow him to attend that NSTA conference. Once I discovered the educational vortex of GIS, I fell in and have been learning the most amazing things ever since. All thanks to Charlie Fiztpatrick and ESRI!! Charlie I salute you for all that you have contributed to Geography/GIS education! Thank you for being such a good friend as well.

  3. karlw says:

    Hear! Hear! Well said Charlie. Thanks.