Lots of people think that geography means memorizing state capitals, but it’s so much more exciting than that (no offense to Bismarck or Carson City). Emily White leads the South Dakota Geographic Alliance as part of National Geographic’s efforts to help kids have fun with geography. She spoke with us about all the cool places she’s been, and what she’s found there.
I don’t know that I was specifically interested in geography when I was young, but I’ve always loved to be outside and I’ve always been curious about my surroundings. It wasn’t until college, when I double-majored in earth science and geography, that I realized the full potential of geography and all the ways it could allow me to explore the world.
Now I mostly teach students, kindergarten kids through high school seniors, about the creative ways they can use geography, but my first love was and is cartography, or mapping the world.
Not at all! For example, I worked with a biologist in Maryland to map snail populations. It sounds silly, but snails and other simple organisms can actually tell us a great deal about the environment. And of course, living creatures and plants are always moving and changing, often more quickly than at a snail’s pace, so there’s always something new to map, new connections to make.
That’s exactly right. Pretty much everyone has heard of GPS, but GIS – geographic information systems – are even more useful. These systems are basically layers of data displayed geographically, and you can filter out layers and search for all sorts of different data points. An example of this is a forest optimization study I did to help a timber company sustainably farm wood. After I mapped a forest, the logging crew could sort the trees by species and age, and then simply follow the map to the pockets of trees that are safe to cut down.
The great thing about geography is you can use it to explore whatever you’re already interested in – geography literally means “Earth writing.” It usually depends on the kids, but one thing most students enjoy is mapping the playground. That can also help make the playground a more fun place to play. One eco-conscious class mapped all the pieces of litter they found, and then looked at the quantity and locations of trash cans to figure out the best way to reduce litter.
They can think globally by starting from a very local point. For instance, a pencil that you might use every day almost certainly has parts from different countries all over the world. It’s fascinating to trace the journey of a pencil’s wood, paint, graphite, aluminum and eraser, and then see where the parts come together. Then you can start asking more questions, like “Why did this pencil have such a complex assembly line?” and “Could it be simplified?” and “What impact does the pencil have on the people in each part of the world who work to make it possible?”
Geography is not just memorizing or labeling a map – it’s about exploring and investigating every thing and every place you come across, asking questions, and then making decisions for a better world.
Everyone needs to understand basic operations, angles, and measurement math to do any geography or draw any kind of map. An understanding of statistics and probability is also very important, because that gives you more ways to investigate the workings of the world. Since I was interested in earth science, I took a lot of physics classes in college, which required a good deal of calculus and trigonometry.
Ready for your own geography adventures? Be sure to check out, Don’t Worry, Be Mappy, our November printable activity pages.
Image licensed by Ingram Publishing