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.