I have had several great opportunities to teach at the college level beginning with acting as an undergraduate teaching assistant to an archaeological field school to today and my current position as an Instructor in the Department of Geology and Geography at UNC Pembroke. In addition to undergraduate classroom instruction, I have also taught graduate, online, lab, and field courses.
I have also had significant experience in informal outreach efforts. The role of education continues to change and the efforts placed in informal education today will likely have a direct impact on the classroom tomorrow.
With the rapid growth in access to information with digital and mobile portals, there has been an observable slip in connection to directly relevant information for a particular topic. The discussions on issues of digital literacy and information literacy have shown that we must make context an even greater aspect of instruction to ground relevant information. Throughout my classes I have infused various aspects of experience, from cultural to technological, to place course content in a relatable and often real-world context. The result has been two-fold:
- that students have a touch-stone to specific course content, and
- that students, in most classes, have experience with a potential job-skill.
The different scale of experience is directly comparable to the course-level. Larger general education classes such as World Regional Geography, which cover a significant amount of information in a single semester, utilize external experiences by bringing in people who are from or have been to the region or country to that is currently being discussed. My most recent example was having a visiting scholar from China share her experience of her country and even her home town. Generally, however, it is the support of colleagues on campus who are willing to share their experience for a class meeting. While it is not feasible to bring someone in for each part of the world, seeing how growing up in another region effects someone has a broader impact on students perspectives of the world outside the US than the one day the guest speaker spends with the class. Hands-on experiences in this level of class, however, are generally limited to basic writing and map reading skills.
In introductory level classes, such as Cultural Geography, it is possible to increase the scale of experience. Students can be introduced to disciplinary methods such as participant observation, interviews, landscape description, and map creation. Creating information and data through observation or interaction is core not only in Geography, but for all students taking this level of course for general education or other requirements. The ability to present the information and data visually and textually is equally as important to all disciplines. Through the “spatial turn” that has been occurring in a range of disciplines over the last few decades, Geography and its methods and tools have become explicitly important in nearly all areas of research and practice. By setting spatial concepts within a broader context it is easier for students to understand that “spatial awareness” goes beyond the boundaries and capitals of Social Studies tests to extend to the spatial attributes and interactions between objects.
Upper level classes that are focused on majors or minors can take advantage of smaller class sizes to conduct field experiences. Field experiences can focus on external experience, such as visiting a work place, or personal experience, such as hands-on field activity or research. For Urban Geography, a visit to a city planning department shows students work environments, office interactions, access to resources, and other workplace aspects that go beyond a presenter’s discussion of work activities. For Land Use Planning, immersing students in a local issue or creating a hypothetical plan gives them the direct experience of creating an inventory and proposing a plan to address issues.
Finally, technical courses, such as GIS or Remote Sensing, are driven by experience and are often the most direct in building on experience from similar courses. In addition, geospatial tools offer a concrete example of how spatial awareness can be implemented and support a broad range of disciplines both in the classroom and beyond. The array of geospatial technologies available today holds the key to preparing students and professionals alike for the technologies that continue to find their way to the workplace. Providing students with a hands-on experience with geospatial technologies as simple as a webmap, impresses ideas such as “latitude and longitude”, “scale”, and “feature extraction” more readily than through a lecture alone.
These scales of experience, from external to hands-on, provide not only course content, but context. Context that can provide students with a touch-stone to help ground their search, acquisition, and creation of information. And context which can provide them with skills that they can use not only in other classes, but in graduate school and the jobs that they are moving toward.
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