Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What is the Right Question to Further Geography Education?

Sociologist Judith Adler of Memorial University (Newfoundland and Labrador) got famous, or infamous, on January 15. Her discussion of her college students' inability to locate countries on the map in an essay on the CBC.ca website (or perhaps it first appeared in the National Post, I can't tell) prompted the usual response. "We need more geography." "Students need to memorize things."

Then there was a thoughtful essay from Esri's Joseph Kerski arguing that perhaps we are asking the wrong question. His argument, as I understand it, is that we should not be asking students to locate counties as part of teaching and learning geography. Instead, we should be asking them to think about the how and why, and perhaps the "so what" of geography.
The real tragedy is not that students don’t know where the Atlantic Ocean is, but how oceans function, why oceans are important to the health and climate of the planet, how oceans support economies, about coral reefs and other ocean life, about threats to the ocean, and so on. The tragedy is that very little of what I consider to be true geoliteracy is being rigorously taught and engaged with around the world: Core geographic content (such as sustainability, biodiversity, climate, natural hazards, energy, and water), the spatial perspective (such as holistic, critical, and spatial thinking about scale, processes, and relationships) and geographic skills (such as working with imagery, GIS, GPS, databases, and mobile applications). While there are many fine exceptions, we need a much greater global adoption, beginning with valuing geography and geospatial as fundamental to every student’s 21st Century education.
I agree. My editorial in Directions Magazine this week argues that learning "where everything is" should not be the goal of, nor nor  definition of, our discipline.

What should that goal and definition be? I'm still working on that, but I'm sure it revolves around "doing geography" and using its principles to understand the world around us. Let me give you an example from my own life and my own geography.

Over the weekend a friend asked: "Why is the Walgreens going in right across the street from the CVS in Porter Square [Cambridge, MA]? They sell the same things!" I noted that just one "square" away, in Davis Square, Somerville, the CVS went in across the street from the Rite Aid, yet another pharmacy.

I'd noticed the groundbreaking for the new store and pondered the same question. I'm not a business geographer, so I did some research and found two very different explanations.

One, via Lakeview News, is from an article about a Michigan version of the same exact question, just with CVS following Walgreens. It suggests the paired locations are not really about the local geography, but perhaps some distant market area.
“Walgreens has a reputation for spotting the best locations while CVS/pharmacy always follows and copies them,” said Ahmed Maamoun, an assistant professor of Marketing in the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth. 
Maamoun said that the strategy of similar businesses clustering together is a common phenomenon.“The strategy aims at making it more difficult for the competitor to gain market share, revenues, or profits that could be used to undermine the other rival in other markets,” Maamoun said.
It is found not only among drug store chains but also other retail formats such as Wal-Mart and Target, Sam’s Club and Costco, Home Depot and Lowe’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.
The other argument, and this is the one I remember from geography class, was about a rising tide raising all boats. If someone is looking for a car, they'll travel farther and be more likely to look at/buy a car at the dealer next door, than to travel miles to that other dealer. Hence many cities have a version of the "auto-mile" and the strip of fast food joints. Here's one of the papers that does the math to support that argument.

I think my friend's question is a better one to ask (and explore) to expand geographic thinking than "Where is the Atlantic Ocean?"

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Building Minecraft in Planning, Design, Spatial Literacy and other Curricula

I read James Fee and Dale Lutz thoughts on how Minecraft, a computer game of building and defending areas of our earth, had made their sons both decent 3D designers and more savvy about sustainability.

Lutz wrote on the It's All About Data Blog:
I found this out first hand recently when, the night before doing a webinar on 3D, I asked my 15 year old son to whip me up a model of the Barseb├Ąck Nuclear Power Plant using Minecraft. In a matter of minutes, he had the model on the right for me.
Fee wrote on the Spatially Adjusted Blog:
It all came to me when Connor said he wished he hadn’t dug such a big hole because the sheep and pigs kept falling into it (that’s pretty funny out of context, but you’ll get over it). So while I was building my Fort out by the sea, he went back to restoring the hillside so it not only looked good, but could support trees, flowers and bushes. We talked about creating a rail line between our two forts and he wanted to make sure it was routed around area’s he wanted to protect.
These gentleman are very savvy geospatial professionals and so far as I can tell, great Dads, they are not explicitly educators. That said, I've learned quite a bit from both of them over the years. And, they are on to something with Minecraft, a game born in Stockholm.

It turns out that at least one school in Sweden requires students to work with the game. Or as The Local, the Swedish English language paper, puts is, "Swedish school makes Minecraft a must." The Viktor Rydberg school teaches lessons using the game to about 180 13 year olds. What do they learn? Per one teacher: “They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future.”

Many of the boys, it seems, know of the game already, but girls were not deterred and began building, too. Instructors compare it to shop or art class; it's about making things and reworking them to make them better. As Fee points out, this is very much the idea behind geodesign, the more spatially aware vision for thoughtful, iterative planning.

How did Minecraft get into this school? A nationwide "Future City" competition asked students how to make education better in Sweden and one suggestion was using Minecraft.

I wonder if STEM, geography and other educators are willing to set GIS aside for a moment to consider the role Minecraft might play. What standards could it address? What areas of critical thinking? What areas of spatial literacy? A quick search turned up a few scattered uses of Minecraft in geography education, but nothing too mature...yet.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Unmanned Vehicle University Obtains License; Offers Free Book Publishing

I've been following Unmanned Vehicle University (UVU) on this blog for abut a year (previous articles: 1, 2). I keep an eye on it for two reasons. First, it's in the geospatial/GIS/remote sensing arena and second, it's a for-profit institution. I regularly receive e-mails from the school about upcoming courses and new offerings such as videos and books, but I do not receive news about the school itself. That information I have to dig up myself.

So, what's new at UVU since late 2012? Quite a lot!

In November university president Dr (Col Ret) Jerry LeMieux contributed to Big Beacon, a website about new ways to teach engineering. In his post titled Innovator’s Notebook: A New Approach to Unmanned Systems Engineering Education he scoped out the unique vision for UVU. It included decisions to:
  • Start from a student’s perspective. [Connect course content to job (job market).]
  • Recruit world-class expert faculty. [Require a PhD in engineering and tons of experience. Use social media to find faculty all over the world.]
  • Keep content real worldly, relevant, and applicable. [Mix delivery systems for content (lectures, videos, reading) and for student work (problem sets, papers, take home evaluations).]
  • Set a realistic business model and competitive pricing. [Make course fees low to serve areas with limited income (South America, India) and use off-site adjunct faculty to keep overhead manageable.]
Also in November I learned from LiDAR News' Gene Roe about the university's journal. "The International Journal of Unmanned Systems Engineering – (IJUSEng) is the official journal of Unmanned Vehicle University and the first journal exclusively dedicated to unmanned systems engineering." The January 2013 is the first issue and includes three free-to-read articles. There are also details on how to contribute and subscribe. The quarterly online publication is $495 for individuals and $150 for students. The publication is based in the UK. The editor, Dr Pascual Marques, has a company called Marques Aviation, which sells aircraft related products and services (website copyright 2010). He is UK Director for UVU.

On December 12 the University announced by press release a license to grant degrees in Arizona.
Unmanned Vehicle University just received a university license from the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education. The license grants UVU the authority to grant Doctorate and Masters Degrees in Unmanned (Air/Ground/Sea/Space) Systems Engineering. A Certificate in Unmanned Systems Project Management is also available for Undergraduates.
The Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education license shows no accreditations. I'm guessing that means that the board does not recognize the accreditation from International Association for Distance Learning UVU holds. Or perhaps that accreditation ran out? (I noted the IADL membership in a previous article.)

Interestingly,"fully accredited degrees," a phrase on the UVU homepage for some time, is no longer mentioned anywhere on the website. While exploring the Arizona license, I learned that the school does not operate in Washington State.  UVU "is not a legal degree-granting school in the state of Washington," per the Washington Student Achievement Council.

In late December the University posted a job for a recruiter noting a salary of 10K per month (120K per year, wow)! I saw it on several job boards including SimplyHired.com. 

At the end of December UVU announced, again via press release, a program to pay for the publication of the first 50 approved texts about UAVs submitted. The gory details are on the UVU Press page; it suggests publication could cost between $3K and $5K without this aid. The press already has one book approved: Dr Oren Gal, who is working on his PhD at the Technion in Israel, had his book titled "Marine Robotic Concepts and Science" approved.

To start off 2013 the University received the trademark (press release) for Unmanned Vehicle University, describing it as "Unmanned vehicle training and education."

UVU is clearly working hard to keep both its educational integrity high while boosting its bottom line.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Find a Grant to Fund STEM Initiatives, Professional Development and other Educational Imperatives

I'm always wary of databases or indexes hosted by commercial companies. I have to believe there is a motive beyond altruism. Thus, a database offered by IT warehouse CDWG (the part of CDW that serves education, government and healthcare) is suspect. While I'm sure there are some honest "service to the community" goals for the effort, I'm also sure there's some hope dollars delivered to schools, educators and students via its GetEdFunding website will end up in the company coffers.

GetEdFunding is a free, curated database of more than 750 active grants and awards (as of January 8) "that are currently available to public and private pre-K–12 schools, districts and educators, higher education institutions and the nonprofit organizations that work with them. I'd take that number with a grain of salt; many of the results I found had application dates during 2012 and many others were unsure of funding for 2013. I also found some "contests" that were not really grants including the National Geography Bee listed.

The site allows searches by geography (U.S. state or nationwide) institutional eligibility (public, private, charter, etc.), grade level (by grade group, higher ed, adult), focus (humanities, ed tech, professional development or STEM), content areas (arts, math, social science) and what are called 21st Century Skills (critical thinking, global awareness and problem solving).

I searched for U.S. grants for grade 9-12 STEM grants and got 50 results. Many are from federal government agencies like the National Science Foundation or the Department of Education while others are from professional groups like American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and AAUW. Many are from private corporations like Lowes and United Technologies Corporation.

A keyword search on "geography" resulted in two state grants, including one from a state geography alliance. Good to see!

It's worth a quick look and perhaps an application if it will mean a professional development workshop for an instructor or a new computer for the classroom.

- via EdTech Magazine

Friday, January 4, 2013

Spatial Temporal Math - Is it Spatial?

Students in Costa Mesa, California, via funding from Hyundai, are testing out a new math teaching environment in a new laboratory. The teaching program is called ST Math. The ST refer to "spatial" and "temporal," respectively. Curious? So was I!

The program is from MIND Research Institute:
The MIND Research Institute enables elementary and secondary students to reach their full academic and career potential through developing and deploying math instructional software and systems. A non-profit organization, MIND also conducts basic neuroscientific, mathematics, and education research to improve math education and advance scientific understanding.
The ST Math program introduces concepts without language or symbols. Only after the visualization is mastered are the symbols introduced. The interactive environment for each topic involves a penguin traveling along the road. Jiji runs into all sorts of missing bridges (obstacles). I guess his city has limited funds for infrastructure... Anyway, students interact with floating blocks to fill the holes to allow Jiji to continue on. It makes more sense once you watch the video, try actual exercises and enjoy the "games" (choose the "games" link under programs in the menu).

I could not find any particular discussion of the spatial aspect of the materials or what spatial thinking skills, if any, are addressed. I did, however, identify the "Upright Jiji" game, where the player rotates Jiji to standing, as very spatial. It's fun, too!

Working the exercises and games reminded me of three things. First, it reminded me of the colored wooden "sticks" we used to learn addition in grade school circa 1972. I recall enjoying playing with them, but can't say how, or if, they helped me learn.

Second, ST Math reminded me of Motion Math (which I wrote about early in 2012). While Jiji doesn't involve physically moving my laptop, I do see touch versions are available and expect motion will be integrated in the future. The key similarity is the intense and simple graphic representations of the challenges and the clear, rock solid progression from basic to more complex problems.

Finally, ST Math reminded me of an early online teaching tool, PLATO (Wikipedia), that I used in college to learn physics. It was not as flashy as ST Math, but included some of the same visual elements and the progression of lessons from easier to more challenging. I loved PLATO and probably spent more time on it (we had two terminals in Eckhart Hall) than anyone else in 130s physics in 1983. I got an A in physics; I credit PLATO and a great professor, Isaac Abella.

The single thing that ties ST Math, Motion Math and even PLATO together, for me, is that all of these implementations made me 100% confident I could learn the topic at hand. It might take me a few times through each exercise, but I could figure it out. Having a computer program, or an instructor, that can instill that confidence in a student is pretty special. When I think back on my favorite instructors from grade 1 to graduate school, they all gave me that confidence. I'm intrigued that a computer program can do the same thing.

- Math Lab opening press release via THE Journal via SmartBrief on EdTech

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Free, OER Geography Text STILL Available Thanks to Saylor Foundation

The big education news at the end of last year was that the Saylor Foundation came to the rescue of Flat World's once open textbooks (Saylor announcement). Who? What? I hear you cry.

Flat World, until late last year offered a slew of free-to-use digital textbooks. In November the company made a change to take its once Creative Commons licensed texts from that license to one by which the company could make money (Techdirt coverage). While some educators responded with dismay, the Saylor Foundation kicked in in some way, it's not exactly clear how, to keep the open texts open and free. Flat World still offers, and Saylor encourages use of, printed ($) versions of the texts.

My sense is few readers had heard of either Flat World or the foundation, so let me get right to why readers of this blog, geography and GIS educators, would care about this seemingly obscure news. Flat World, and now Saylor, offers a long list of free to use textbooks. One of them is a detailed, PhD-written regional geography text, World Regional Geography (large PDF) by Dr. Royal Berglee from Morehead State University in Kentucky. It's got concise chapters, introduces key geographic principles, surveys regions, has maps and charts, and on quick review, passes muster with me. The main things I found to be missing: a table of contents and an index.