Teaching Challenges and Solution Strategies

By: Ellie Davis, Arzoo Malhotra and Marietta Gelfort

Through this post, we will share some of the challenges and solutions we have experienced while teaching. During the summer session we had a consistent group of students who received introductory knowledge of geography and open source mapping. However, this group of students changed due to lower participation rates and the older students entering more advanced classes. In response to this change and without the resources or time to repeat the summer classes, we reorganized the fall and spring sessions into a more modular design. Each class we teach is independent of the other classes, allowing for the constantly changing student attendance. Although a single class can build on knowledge from previous classes, the activities and discussions do not require those classes. Our class time also changed from the summer. We are teaching after school in an evening session. After many hours of learning, our students are tired of lectures and instead, we have found that physical activities receive a better response. Now, we form our classes around interactive activities that simulate the topic of the class. We also are bringing in speakers to help the students see the real world applications of the topics.

Due to these challenges, we learned that our teaching objectives had to be altered to create a more motivating and engaging learning environment. Most challenging in this regard was to let go of traditional teaching methods and strategies as well as to acknowledge time and space limitations. This experience has helped us create a more flexible and interactive classroom. The final chapter of our class will be to help the students interview one of the speakers that came to our class and produce a short presentation on that person’s career and how the student could achieve a similar career. We look forward to seeing the students’ presentations and their observations of the career options in geography.



Project Lilypad: Project Impact

By: Paige Cooper

What has been the impact of this project on you personally? On your academic experience? On the community you intend to serve?
The need for persistence has been a lesson from this project. When my original ideas for floating wetlands turned out to be more difficult to implement than anticipated, it has at times been hard not to become discouraged and a little disconnected. Often in a classroom setting problems are just a point of discussion and not an actual plan of action.
Working on casework for public health classes has sometimes made the reality of community projects seem more solution-orientated or data-driven. As I have learned from this experience, that is not always the case. Projects that may seem perfect from the start might have more complex processes. While the frustration may seem bad, I think there’s still a lot of benefit jumping through hoops and trying to make a positive change.
Moving forward with my project and other future endeavors, I want to have a mindset of iterative change. If the first attempts don’t work out, it’s okay to revise the plan and press on.

What is keeping you in this program?
I like how the work on Kingman Island is part of bigger movement for its community. Despite the fact that there’s a lot of city politics that continue to overlook the area, and a little uncertainty about the future of the neighborhood as the stadium re-development continues, I view the revitalization of Kingman Island as a project that provides both environmental and social benefits. Restoring the Island not only provides a direct benefit the to river and land, but also provides a public space for everyone to enjoy. Even though previous city plans to restore the island have fallen through, there’s a lot of hope and potential for the park.



How is this going to impact your future?
Being a part of this project has encouraged me to be a more active citizen in DC. I have had a limited understanding of DC, despite having attended school in the middle of the city for the past four years. As I make the transition out of GW and into the working world, I would like to take more ownership of the DC community that has become my home. As a resident, I feel like I have partial responsibility for the social and environmental disparities within DC. My project isn’t just helping a distant community; it’s helping my future neighbors.

Describe one moment that was particularly meaningful to you.
One moment that was meaningful to me was listening to a resident of the area nearby Kingman Island describe how the park was a special place for her. While I was waiting in line, I overheard this woman next to me speaking about a park that she loved to visit next to a giant parking lot. The hint of a “giant parking lot” tipped me off that she was talking about Kingman Island, so I joined in on her conversation.

From our conversation, I learned that she was a resident of the area and we were able to speak about her experiences as a resident of the area. She was very energetic and enthusiastic. Even though she recognized that the neighborhood had challenges and that the recent stadium development was a strain on the community, she had a lot of optimism for the area. She called Kingman Island “a bright spot”. Being able to have a candid conversation with a resident about the Island helped to me to better visualize the long-term potential for what this project could mean. As an outsider to the area, I will likely only see a small part of the project. To members of the community, such as this woman who visits the park often, changes to her community good or bad have an effect on her everyday life. I hope that Kingman Island can continue to provide a “bright spot” to members in the community.


GIS for Youth Empowerment: Project Impact

By: Ellie Davis

What has been the impact of this project on you personally? On your academic experience? On the community you intend to serve? 

GIS For Youth Empowerment has rejuvenated my passion for geography education. It has helped me decide on a career path and highlighted the importance of geography in the school system. The community has benefited from the scholars learning about both assets and issues and learning how to be change makers and advocates in their community.

What is keeping you in this program?

I think it is vitally important for our scholars to learn about different geographical concepts and be able to connect those concepts to their own lives. Watching them think deeply and grow academically keeps me teaching.

How is this going to impact your future?

This experience has solidified my resolve to receive a PhD in Geography and be able to use this experience to help other communities.

Describe one moment that was particularly meaningful to you.

There is a student in our class that was very quiet and was nervous about speaking up in front of her peers. During one class, she whispered a very insightful idea about the topic and we got her to share it with the class. Since then, she has become a leader and articulate participant in the class.

Perry School Peace Garden: Project Impact

By: Max Grossman

What has been the impact of this project on you personally? On your academic experience? On the community you intend to serve?
With its rain barrel, educational activities, gardening, and cooking demonstrations, my project is inherently multifaceted. This has made a personal impact on me as it has taught me the power of building partnerships when I – neither a master rain barrel installer or gardener – need help achieving project goals. Working with the GW’s Engineers Without Borders chapter and DC Greens has made much of the program areas that I lack experience with possible, and grown the community which the project serves.
The project has also had an academic impact. It has removed the abstraction from the research-based justifications I originally made when justifying the project. Through the project activities, I was able to see the impact it makes myself, rather than just put my faith in published papers. This sort experiential learning is very powerful.
Through the environmental lessons, the Perry School students have been introduced to plants, places, and ideas new to them. For example, it fascinated students that the same sweet potatoes grown on farms surrounding DC are also grown in Taiwan. They have also had the chance to experience the K Street Farm – an open green space they look forward to going back to in the spring.
What is keeping you in this program?
Over the past two years, I’ve come to know and care about many of the children in this program. In that time, it has become increasing evident that gardening and being outside is something they truly enjoy. This program makes our student’s outside time possible, and because of this I seek to continue implementing a meaningful service project.
How is this going to impact your future?
As my first real interaction with community and educational gardening, working on the eco-equity challenge has made it clear that I will seek out similar opportunities in the future.
Describe one moment that was particularly meaningful to you.
In the fall, partner DC Greens gave our students a tour of their K Street Farm. This day was particularly meaningful to me as it generated the sense of discovery I’d hoped would come from the project. Kids struggled trying to say the word cistern, learned the important relationship between bugs and crops, and marveled at the taste of real honey. Capturing these sorts of moments is part of what makes service projects special and I hope to help our students discover more in the future.

Project Lilypad: A Portrait of Kingman Island

By: Paige Cooper
To an outsider Kingman Island may not seem so impressive. Benning Road Bridge and the metro overpass cross over the Island and river perpendicularly. Driving across the road on one side of the Island, it would be easy to miss. There are chain-link fences, dirt, gravel and a view of the Langston Golf Course’s flat grass turf, which easily turns to sludge in the rain. If you travel beyond all this development, the park has scenic views of the river.

When I first visited the Island over a year ago in the summer, my white sneakers sank into the grass and became covered in mud in the golf course’s driving range. My dependence on GPS had led me astray and into the muddy golf course. The real entrance to the park is hidden away within a massive parking lot. As a non-native DC resident, I had a hard time imagining that many people in my own Georgetown and Foggy Bottom bubble had visited the park tucked along the river.
The park is located alongside historically overlooked communities in the DC-area within Wards 6 & 7. Previous plans to restore the Island have fallen short to city budget cuts. Moreover, the Park will be impacted by proposed redevelopment of the RFK Stadium site. Every new construction has potential risks to the habitat of the River and Island.

Despite all of the political conflict and commotion that has surrounded the Island, the park is a special refuge. While there have been many struggles to protect the land and water in the past, this struggle is validated by how much potential the Island has as a restored habitat. Already the island has benefited the DC community by hosting the Blue Grass Festival every year and by providing one of the few escapes from city noise. What makes this park special is not just what it has already provided or the challenges it has had to persevere, but its potential for growth. If given the funds and means to thrive, Kingman Island would offer the whole DC community a prime space for breathing room, beauty and nature.


GIS for Youth Empowerment

By: Arzoo Malhotra

Over the past decade, there have been several articles about the geographic illiteracy of American students and adults. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014, 73% of eighth-graders tested below proficient in geography. With the increased reliance on Google Maps and digital navigation technology, combined with the reduced allocation of funding and resources to geographic education in the public school system, students just aren’t cultivating spatial thinking.

While many assume the scope of geography is limited to identifying cities and political boundaries on a map, the reality could not be further from this. Analyzing phenomena through space allows individuals to make connections that otherwise might be overlooked; connections like the one made between Climate Change and the Arab Spring. Geographic analysis helped academics to realize that climate change related food price spikes led to the economic instability that primed the Arab World for the game-changing protests that rocked the world in 2011. In our rapidly globalizing world, our students are becoming less able to include spatial considerations in the way they tackle global problems.

Our program, GIS for Youth Empowerment, seeks to engage students with local, regional, and global geographies to understand how key phenomena occur in real space. Particularly, our interest is to include mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) in the curriculum to help students cultivate highly demanded skills in the global market. GIS technologies allow individuals to create, manage, analyze and present spatial data, in order to extract as much valuable information about the phenomena as possible. It is one of the fastest growing fields in the United States, and by equipping our students with this technology we hope to give them the tools to succeed in the job market in the decades to come.

Our curriculum seeks to employ teaching strategies forgone by conventional classroom structures. With the increased emphasis in public schools on teaching methods designed to train students to succeed on standardized tests, more creative and physically involved teaching strategies are often overlooked in favor of more orthodox ones. We found that our students are excited to learn through unstructured exploration and imaginative activities, which we are trying to include in our curriculum. The students were keen to work with Legos, maps, paint, and other mediums to help them learn about the physical world through more tactile activities. We hope to introduce the students to concepts like climate change, gentrification, food security, environmental degradation, global cultures and many others through the use of novel and innovative new approaches to geographic education.

Playing “Geography Simon Says”