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What’s Trending in Geography and Geographic Education? Rapid Growth – That’s What! | Joe Dymond

Although Geography occasionally suffered from name recognition in the past (it’s Geography not Geology!), the hard work of geographic education advocates, coupled with increasing connectivity around the world, changing spatial awareness (through the everyday use of platforms like Google Maps and global phenomena such as climate change) and rapidly developing geospatial techniques, suggest the potential development of a new, and perhaps enlightened era for Geography.

This blog post is the first in a new GWU Department of Geography blog series. The Geography Department invites Geography faculty, current students, and alumni to get involved in the dynamic and diverse conversation this blog series creates. For our debut post, I am here to examine trends and significant developments in U.S. geographic education and in geography’s relevance. Geographic education has become the object of newfound awareness and acceptance in recent years in the United States. Its (re)incorporation can be seen across all education levels, from primary to post-secondary.

A basic definition of Geography is: the study of the spatial distribution of human and physical phenomena across the Earth’s surface.  Although this broad discipline encompasses a wide range of research areas and subdisciplines, geographers often divide Geography into three main bodies: Human Geography, Physical Geography, and Geospatial Techniques.  These are not necessarily discreet, mutually exclusive branches of the discipline. They may overlap or influence one another, or each may be used as tools to better understand the other.

Geographic Education is likewise a broad concept. It encompasses advocacy for the inclusion of Geography in public and private education systems, the quality of instruction of geography across the education spectrum from primary through post-secondary education levels, the topical emphases and foci of both geography courses/pedagogical tools and the discipline at large, and the execution of primary research (to name just a few).

Geographic education and awareness have been influenced by two big developments: Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, and the inclusion of AP Human Geography by the College Board.  The developmental process of the National Geography Standards began in 1994 under the umbrella of the Geographic Education National Implementation Project (GENIP), through the cooperative efforts of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), The American Geographical Society (AGS), the Association of American Geographers (AAG), and the National Geographic Society (NGS). In other words, some highly talented Geographers created these standards! A 2nd Edition of the Standards was released in 2012 and they have been adopted by most states in the United States.

Another launching point for today’s Geography was the Advanced Placement Human Geography course curriculum and exam. The College Board launched the Advanced Placement Human Geography Exam in 2001, which helped to significantly expand the need for quality geography instruction throughout schools across the United States. It also raised awareness of Geography as a discipline, and increased exposure to Geography for incoming freshmen into colleges and universities. And best of all, it’s generated tremendous enthusiasm for Geography among teachers and high school students.

In fact, AP Human Geography is one of the fastest growing AP subjects.  The exam was first offered in 2001 to a few thousand students.  In 2010, 65,000 students took the exam; by 2016, the numbers have risen to a whopping 188,000!  A recent College Board survey showed that students who do well in AP Human Geography are likely to take more courses in Geography in college.  Consider this: if just 10% of the 188,000 students who took the AP Human Geography exam in 2016 declared a degree in Geography, colleges would be home to 18,000 more geography majors!

Only time (and continued geographic education research!) will tell if these influential mechanisms  create a new era of enlightenment for Geography in the United States, but statistics and trends do suggest they have been a powerful influence in promoting the inclusion and awareness of Geography in the education system at large in the United States. Geography is more popular, relevant, and critical to solving 21st Century problems than ever before!

~ Joe Dymond is an Assistant Professor of Geography at The George Washington University.

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