Our readers know how passionate we are about geography education here at Smart Poodle Publishing. By joining the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), we have connected with one of our nation’s foremost geography education experts, Dr. Joseph Kerski. We are so fortunate that he agreed to take time out of his busy schedule for an interview.

Dr. Kerski’s resume is beyond impressive! He obtained his PhD in Geography from the University of Colorado in 2000 and has authored or edited many textbooks, book reviews and articles about mapping and geography. His expertise is in demand at universities and public schools, where he teaches classes on an ongoing basis. Dr. Kerski has received many grants and awards for his work and is an active member of many professional organizations. Formerly he has worked for the US Bureau of Census and the US Geological Survey. Currently he is the Education Manager for Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a company that designs and develops the world’s leading geographic information system (GIS) technology.

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Dr. Kerski on a mission to improve our geography education

Can you explain to us what a Geographic Information System (GIS) is and how it is used?

Debbie, you are too kind with these comments about me.  We’re all in this together, you and I and others, who are seeking to help increase geographic literacy all over the world.  A GIS is comprised of hardware, software, methods, spatial data (maps, databases, satellite imagery), but most importantly a network of people who seek to improve their everyday decision making.  Their decisions incorporate the “where” question, and GIS was created to help them analyze the world using maps and data to best answer the “where” question.

What types of organizations benefit from your software systems?

Any organization that seeks to improve its efficiency and understanding of the “whys of where’” in their community, region, country, or world.  These organizations—academia, government, nonprofits, businesses—range from Sears, who wanted to save money on the routing of their home delivery vehicles, to Culvers, who want to site their restaurants in the locations that will make the most profit, to a city government, which seeks to reduce waste and redundancy and improve water, transportation, and planning services, all the way to the United Nations Environment Programme, which seeks to promote sustainable agriculture and to understand environmental impacts.  There are more applications in law enforcement, public safety, real estate, energy, natural hazards, education, and much more here at ESRI.

What is spatial thinking and what does it have to do with our natural environment?

Spatial thinking is thinking holistically and geographically about how phenomena and processes display a pattern that we can detect through mapping it.  It is a critical thinking skill, one that when coupled with using GIS and GPS technologies aids the student in excellent career pathways, and one that is of incredible importance in our 21st Century.  After all, every major issue we face—from climate change to urban sprawl to renewable energy to biodiversity loss to political instability—has a spatial component.  It can be better understood through spatial analysis in a GIS environment.

You worked as a cartographer, which really sounds interesting to me. Can you tell us what that entails?

A cartographer is a mapmaker, which in the not-too-distant past used film, needles, and laborious techniques to make accurate maps.  Nowadays, all cartographers use GIS and other computer tools to do their work, yet the goal is still the same—to produce timely, accurate map data for people to better understand the Earth and all that is in it.

You sent me a link to the video of the world’s largest mapping room of the US Geological Survey in Denver. It is massive, and I’d love to see that myself some day! How many maps are housed in that facility, and where do they come from?

The USGS is the nation’s mapping agency, and has been around since 1879.  They have been making maps since then, and the results are stored in the map room that I filmed in that video, but also, increasingly, in digital map files.  The maps include topographic maps, geologic maps, hydrologic maps, maps of oil, coal, and gas, and much more—even maps of planets!  About 75,000 individual titles and over 30,000,000 individual maps are in this collection.

It’s hard to imagine that many maps in one place! What inspired you to become a geographer?

First, I love maps.  Second, I love to explore the Earth.  Third, I love people.  Fourth, I want to make a difference in our world by helping people understand it, appreciate it, and work together on common goals.

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He’s got the whole world in his hands!

As a children’s book author visiting schools with my simple geography program, I knew going in that American students were lacking in geography knowledge, but I never realized just how much. I was most disappointed by the teachers’ lack of basic US geography knowledge. Why do you think Americans are so seriously lacking in geography knowledge?

It is simply because we have neglected geography education in our K-12 educational system for the past century, and are reaping what we have sowed.  It has become at best, buried under the Social Studies, and at worst, not taught at all or perhaps as a 1 semester class in Grade 7 and/or Grade 9.  When it is taught, it is often taught as a memorization in country names, imports and exports, or other such facts, rather than the study of the interaction between people on the landscape and environment.

How does this hurt us as a nation?

It hurts us in our international politics, in the way we treat the environment, and in economics, because students who understand geography and its importance are much better employees in a tremendous variety of fields.

How do we compare to other countries in geography education?

If you dig into the Roper Surveys and other reports, we are not at the bottom, but for a developed country such as ours that has a leadership responsibility throughout the world, we are faring quite abysmally.

What can our nation’s schools do to improve the situation?

I wish to point out here that there are a good many wonderful geography educators at all levels – K-12, community college, university, and in informal education such as 4-H, Girl Scouts, libraries, and museums.  They are doing amazing work and I am privileged to work with many of them.  To improve the situation, I think we need to ensure that geography is funded under No Child Left Behind,  we need to support our geography education association (the National Council for Geographic Education), we need to ensure that our schools are high-tech centers, not places where technology support is lacking, we need to educate our public officials about the importance of geography and how it can help them as well as the entire society, we need to encourage immersive, field-based, investigations at all levels of education, rather than superficial instruction that is based on testing and memorization.  There are additional things that have to do with how our entire society values education, but these I would rank highest.

Are we making progress?

In some ways, yes; take a look at some of the things that educators are doing with GIS, for example—investigating water quality, crime, migration, ecoregions, renewable energy, and much more.  In some ways, things have not improved or have become worse (especially in the case of getting students outside to do meaningful fieldwork).

What do you foresee in the future for geography education in America? How will it change?

We can either maintain the status quo and suffer the consequences, or take action to improve the situation for the benefit of our students, our teachers, and the entire society.   I see some educators and students continuing to do amazing things, and other students who are so turned off by our educational system that they have given up on it.

What advice do you have for parents who want to make sure their children are well educated when it comes to geography?

Advocate strong geography education in your school district and with your elected officials.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Working with my colleagues both inside and outside ESRI, including educators all over the world, who are dedicated to excellence, one student at a time.

Your career has required you to travel all over the world. What is your favorite place on earth?

I have been to Istanbul, Taipei, Tunis, Munich, and elsewhere over the past year, but I still enjoy ordinary places—meadows, grasslands, prairies, shorelines, canyons, deserts, and I also enjoy small town squares, caves, even cemeteries.

What do your own children have to say about what you do? And are they geography savvy themselves?

I was once named “World’s Nerdiest Dad” by a newspaper who wrote about me geocaching with my children.

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What an awesome map!

How is it possible that you have enough time every day to accomplish all you have accomplished in your career?

Debbie, you are very kind, but I am very conscious of standing on the shoulders of my colleagues and other giants who have come before me.  We can each do what we have been given the opportunity to do and I am blessed that I am working for an organization that supports GIS and geography in education as much as ESRI does.

When you are not working, what do you enjoy doing most?

Caving, playing the guitar, geocaching, and riding on rails-to-trails bicycle trails.

What advice would you give to a young student who is considering a career in geography?

First, follow your dreams.  You can get a job in geography!  Second, gain some skills in GIS, web mapping applications, GPS, statistics, and programming.  Third, don’t neglect the content skills in physical and cultural geography, speaking, writing, mathematics, history, earth science, and reading.  Fourth, if you want to make a difference in a ‘green’ and ‘hi-tech’ career, geography is for you!

We so appreciate  your insight, Dr. Kerski! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We commend you for your passion to make such a big difference in the the future of our nation’s education. I hope our readers are inspired by your interview to start asking their children’s schools to improve their geography education.

For more information or to reach Dr. Joseph Kerski, click here.

View his geography videos here.

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