How to Apply Geography Across Your STEM Curriculum?

She Maps Team
12 Sep 2019
Renowned geographer Dr Joseph Kerski strikes a pose beside a Geography letter logo

With Dr. Joseph Kerski, Geographer and Education Manager

Geography is the silent ‘G’ in STEM?

Geography can get overlooked for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it doesn’t feel very sexy next to the likes of robotics, and the geography syllabus in schools has traditionally not done true justice to just how critical the study of geography is to STEM education and to the world.

Dr. Joseph Kerski is a Geographer and Education Manager. To say he’s prolific is an understatement. By his own record, he has authored or co-authored 7 books, 5,000 videos, 1,000 blog essays, 1,000 curricular items, 10 podcasts, 75 articles, and 25 chapters.

We managed to get 10 minutes of his time at Australia’s largest geography education conference. It is full of insights for educators on how we need to be integrating geography more. As Dr. Kerski says:

“All of the things you grapple with in STEM, in civil engineering, computer science, biology, physics – they’re spatial in nature. They have patterns, relationships and trends that can be discovered through applied geography.”

Watch him share his knowledge about how geography can be applied across the STEM subjects or read our short breakdown below.

Why is Geography Important to the STEM Curriculum?

The study of geography is holistic in nature. It comprises the biosphere, where life on Earth exists; the hydrosphere, the water on the ground, in the air; the atmosphere, the blanket of gasses that surround the earth; and the anthrosphere, the parts of Earth’s environment modified by humans.

Essentially, it comprises a lot of areas that, according to climate science, are now at risk.

Geography looks at changes in the Earth in terms of:

1. Change over space
2. Change over time

Both of which are critical to solving the problems our world now faces.

NASA photo of the earth at night time with the thin atmospheric line visible and lights from human cities

A Geographical Renaissance

Cartography has been a much-revered discipline as the ancient civilisations of Babylon, Greece, China and India began to understand and explore the world around them. Fast-forward to the early modern period, a focus on European conquests and colonisation saw the field of geography continue to hold much importance to nations.

The Scientific Revolution and the growing distance between science and religion, particularly in the European world, as well as a continued focus on gaining power as a nation through geopolitical knowledge and exploration. This meant that geography continued to thrive.

The geography syllabus we see in schools today has been through many iterations of the field, particularly during the 20th Century, but there’s a big difference to how geographical knowledge is applied now.

an old fashioned, yellowing map laid out flat and a small yellow compass sitting on top

We know a lot about our world now and we don’t need to explore it in quite the same way as our predecessors. But we still need to understand it better, which as Dr. Kerski points out, has been difficult to do up until now because one crucial part has been missing. The technology to apply it.

Powerful web-mapping, geographical mapping systems, drones and sophisticated ways of collecting and analyzing data are all a reality. And there are many cost-effective ways for classrooms to incorporate these.

The three types of technology many countries see as being important for students to learn in the 21st Century are geotechnologies, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Geography is firmly anchored in the first.

Our New Explorers are Already Engaged

There’s no doubt that students are socially conscious about the world around them. We found a parallel with Dr. Kerski as the ones teaching STEM. We both see students coming to learn about these fields, in our case mapping and geospatial science, already engaged with doing their part to help. They want to find solutions to solve some of the problems the world faces.

When we’re able to connect them with the knowledge and skills of fields like geography, and then show them this new technology that helps them find those solutions – that’s the kind of classroom engagement teachers dream of.

a hand reaching out to touch a tablet which displays a spatial mapping program

The Future of Geotechnologically-Educated Students

Quite importantly, students who learn these skills and can use these tools are likely to be able to pursue STEM professional development and get a job. And within their jobs, make decisions that are smart and sustainable for the planet.

Get Started Integrating Geography

Many of the STEM subjects are enhanced by looking at things spatially. Dr. Kerski uses the example of a biology field trip collecting water quality samples from ponds or lakes. That data can be uploaded online to ArcGIS Online to look at different spatial patterns on a 2D or 3D map like the relationship between dissolved oxygens in the winter and the summer.

STEM teachers can make online multimedia maps like story maps to explain field work or a journey of some kind. Learning to communicate the results through mapping grounds can sometimes be quite complex information in a way that the human brain understands. That kind of science communication doesn’t go to die in a file no one reads. It can be shared with the community and local decision-makers to teach students about the next step in using STEM to create positive change – taking action.

a small chalkboard on the ground with a lightbulb lying in the centre and idea circles drawn in chalk surrounding it

STEM Geography Resources to Check Out

We can’t recommend Dr. Kerski’s YouTube channel enough for truly entertaining geography content – a sentence you don’t hear often enough.

Dr. Kerski is also the Education Manager at ESRI. For us, tools like those created by ESRI represent the future of STEM.

ESRI builds ArcGIS, the world’s most powerful mapping and spatial analytics software. It’s considered the industry standard, but if you’re teaching STEM, you might find that like other professional software out there, it has more than what you need.

The key is to use the chunks that provide value, even if it’s just a small subset of its true capability. And considering that ESRI provides the software free to all schools, you can’t lose!

ArcGIS is designed for open communication. It uses a common visual language that everyone can understand to communicate data sets. Your students can find patterns and relationships between things visually to help with their analysis.

The more complex your data, the more complex ArcGIS can become. But if you’re using the kind of simple data that you might be collecting in a geography or biology class, you will be able to use the software in a simple way.

So, as Dr. Kerski would say, “Map on!”

To read more about the importance of Geography to STEM curriculum, click here.

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