MyTurn: The Importance of 'where'

The other day I was introduced to someone with the comment that I was “a geographer.” Instantly the other person said “What is the capital of Maryland?” The question highlights what many adults think constitutes the study of geography — the study of countries, capitals, mountains and rivers. In fairness they were probably taught the subject that way.


Students and teachers today, however, have a much deeper understanding of geography. It is all about the “where” of things. Locally, geographers might ask how are our communities arranged spatially? Are roads well-connected and operating efficiently? Are services located in the right places? Are election districts fairly drawn? At the international level, geography considers the features (yes, capitals and rivers, etc.) and conditions of other places and how they are connected with where we live. And as members of the European Union now realize, what works in one geographic place might not work in another. Not all places are the same.

Students today know that locating places and figuring out how to go from Point A to Point B can be interesting and exciting. They can use relatively inexpensive GPS (Geographic Positioning Systems) units along with multi-billion dollar satellite systems to locate strategically placed plastic “junk” in towns and rural areas — geocaching! In just a few years GPS units have become commonplace — and essential. Whether traveling between villages, from Point A to Point B in open water, or navigating through a large city, utilizing a GPS unit can help us travel safely. That is applied geography.

Teachers today have a wealth of materials and guides. A great place to start is the National Geographic Society’s website at For the last 25 years, the National Geographic has made significant contributions to geographic education and not just through its iconic golden rectangle magazine. It has a great website for anyone interested in teaching geography (including parents who have homeschoolers) at It has also established “geographic alliances” in all 50 states and in Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. These alliances are composed of teachers who are trained in geography and share their knowledge and resources with each other. In Alaska, there is the Alaska Geographic Alliance at this website at

If you would like to do more to support geography, check with your local school district and find out if geography is taught in the schools. You might also inquire if the schools in your district are part of the National Geographic Society’s “Geographic Bee.” Every spring Alaska holds a “Geographic Bee” in Anchorage highlighting the top fourth through eighth graders in the state. The winner goes to the National Bee in Washington, D.C.

Want to do even more? Visit this National Geographic website at

Geography was recognized as one of the “core” subjects in the No Child Left Behind Act (2001). Unfortunately, it is the only core subject that has not received funding. Our Alaska delegation has been very supportive of geography. Let them know that you agree with them.

Geography Awareness Week (started by President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1987) is from Nov. 13 to 19. This would be a good time to get involved with geography and “where” we are going.

• Pearson is a professor emeritus of Geography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a senior fellow at the Institute of the North in Anchorage. He can be reached at or


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