GeoInspirations: Bill Strong, Focused on What Matters

By Joseph J. Kerski

Editor’s note: Welcome back to our GeoInspirations series, in which our distinguished guest columnist,Dr. Joseph Kerski, introduces us to the men and women who are changing the face of the geospatial industry, and shining a light on the importance of geography. We hope you will be inspired by their stories to make a difference with geography in your corner of the world. Today we are proud and pleased to feature Dr. Bill Strong as Directions Magazine's latest GeoInspiration!

Dr. Bill Strong has spent his entire career focused on teaching sound and rigorous geography and helping students be successful during and after their university experience. His teaching load of five classes per semester for most of his 42 years at the University of North Alabama is, frankly, an awe-inspiring amount of work — something that impacted thousands of students who are the decision-makers of today. For many years, more than 90 percent of his students got jobs before or just after graduation. A few have formed their own successful companies. Now, Dr. Strong is supporting the eleventh year of the University of North Alabama Geography Alumni conference, where students in the private and public sectors return to present their work. It was the alumni’s idea to establish this event, and it is still the only active departmental alumni branch on campus with a conference.

“My anthropology degree was well underway by the end of the first semester of my junior year when my academic interests quite suddenly transformed,” Bill said. “The field adventures of my anthropology and archaeology professors were spellbinding, and the subject matter from early man to the Maya encouraged me to accept an invitation to explore pre-Colombian archeological sites, especially Mayan, in the Yucatan, Belize and even Guatemala. It was the opportunity of a lifetime when the four of us fellow students traveled there — in a 1957 Chevrolet. We drove 7,000 miles in 17 days on an incredible adventure, exploring every site possible and often sleeping in them as well. Even though walking, climbing and photographing the ruins made the classroom lectures come alive, there was one geography graduate student traveling with us who made the world in the background come into focus. He provided a running commentary of the physical and cultural landscapes that we encountered. My geographic eye slowly opened, and with his encouragement, I registered for my first two geography courses the next semester. Even though I achieved the undergraduate degree in anthropology, a door had been opened that would never close, and geography became my academic passion for the rest of my education and life.

“The chair of my Ph.D. committee was the most inspirational person in my career, Dr. Robert K. Holz. He was an engaging lecturer on maps and map interpretation, cartography and Africa, among other courses, and he began research and teaching at the beginning edge of remote sensing in the 1960s. His passion for geography was infectious and encouraged me to excel in my studies. He was gentlemanly in his demeanor and he cared for his students’ education. After graduate school, I joined the University of North Alabama as an instructor. The initial lecture in my first full-time teaching position did not go well and lasted for only 20 minutes. I trudged home, dejected that I did so poorly and wandered around my newly rented house, that was almost devoid of furniture, for hours contemplating what could I do to remedy this untenable situation. In a flash of memory, I thought of Dr. Holz and his lecture style, and for the next several hours I lectured to the walls in my house following his model. The next day I completed my lectures without a hitch and since that time I have always thanked him in my mind for his special guidance. My students were the beneficiaries of his scholarship, mentorship and kindness and I am forever grateful for his presence in my life.

“There were many projects undertaken in the Department of Geography at UNA during my 29-year tenure as the appointed chair which make me proud, including a very early departmental focus on geospatial technology with support from the Tennessee Valley Authority, Erdas and Esri. Our number of majors increased substantially and most of them found jobs quickly; the graduate program in Geospatial Science was successful; and geographic outreach to K-12 teachers was established. I was a coordinator for the Alabama Geographic Alliance for almost 30 years during that time. However, one experience beyond the university classroom may have produced some of my proudest moments. From 1991-1993, I was invited to serve as the geographer-in-residence in the geography education program at the National Geographic Society and was granted a two-year leave of absence from UNA. These were the early years when the society was growing the network of state geographic alliances in order to promote geography in K-12 education. Among many education projects at NGS, I taught geography workshops for teachers, directed three summer Instructional Leadership Institutes in geography, traveled to Japan and the Pacific on Project Marco Polo, and served as a member of the National Geography Standards committee. The standards committee discussions and the publication of the National Geography Standards Geography for Life with its exemplary, world-class geography standards, were a great influence on my understanding of the profession of geography and on restructuring my future undergraduate courses.

“It was in graduate school when one of my older peers stressed that as geographers we must be eternally vigilant to protect and to promote our profession. At that time there were few jobs outside of teaching that required a geography education and schools and colleges were merging geography into social studies or dropping coursework from their curriculum entirely. Perhaps, in order to keep my job, I knew that I had to convince the administration that there was intrinsic value to providing students with a geographic understanding of the community and world, and that a student could get a job using the skills gained from the geography degree. As chair of the department, my colleagues and I worked successfully to provide quality geography education to our students and to assist them in securing jobs using their geography knowledge and skills. To further promote my profession, I wrote op-ed pieces on “why geography” and was interviewed many times on the local television and radio stations to explain geography and to share what we could accomplish with our relatively new focus in remote sensing and GIS,” Bill continued.

“While working with the Alabama State Department of Education on the social studies course of study committee, there was an urgency to inform educators and the public about the value of keeping geography in the K-12 curriculum. Indeed, there was much pressure to eliminate geography, and I believe that being at the table with support from colleagues, teachers and non-education individuals helped ensure that geography played a substantial role in the education of Alabama students. As the geography consultant to this committee, I was fortunate to have the National Geographic experience and was able to make successful arguments to maintain a stand-alone geography course in the seventh grade, an emphasis in the third grade, and an infusion of geography in all history courses. Furthermore, for many of the early years, both the ALSDE and NGS provided substantial grant funding to support K-12 education outreach efforts.

“However, even after promoting geography for the past 40 years, it seems from my perspective that the majority of the population still does not understand what we do and what value a geography education adds to students and the general public in our country. Thus, being eternally vigilant in educating the public about the benefits of geography, for general knowledge of the world, for job opportunity and for life in general, is one of the most important activities that geographers must consider in order to promote and protect our discipline," Bill emphasized.

Bill’s advice to new geographers is: “Keep a sense of adventure! Understand geography as a way of life. Promote and explain geography to the lay audience. Involve yourself at the local and state levels. Network with geographers and non-geographers. Show respect to your students and nurture their education. And by all means, get out of the office and see the world!”

For more about Dr. Strong, see his faculty web page and his Gilbert Grosvenor Geographic Education Honors from the American Association of Geographers.

If you know a GeoInspiration, please share those with us, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). We may feature them in an upcoming column.


Published Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Written by Joseph J. Kerski


Published in

Education


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