As someone who is both an educator and a geospatial professional, I can see the issues and concerns that arise from both sides of the fence around the concept of geomentoring — questions like: Why should I do this? Who should I partner with? How much time will this take? What exactly do they need me to do if I sign up, and why do I have to sign up? There is no geography class in my community; what should I do?
The need for an educated geospatial labor force in the U.S. and around the world has been key to our industry's growth. I truly believe that as passionate geographic/geospatial professionals, we want to see our profession thrive, but nurturing the next generation of professionals seems like a daunting task when we see geomentoring examples that are large projects requiring hefty time commitments. Luckily there are easier ways to be a successful geomentor.
Take a deep breath, and let us break it down a little for you.
About Geography Education
First and foremost, in K-12 education in the United States, geography education varies widely, from required in some schools to non-existent in others. There may not even be a geography teacher in your area, but that doesn't mean you can't help a science, history, English or foreign language teacher — or even a youth-based organization such as 4-H, Scouts, or an afterschool program — learn geosciences instead.
Where do I begin?
Start small. Sign up at geomentors.net, a site hosted by the American Association of Geographers in partnership with Esri. If you are a URISA GIS Corp volunteer, you can put your dot on the map too, (this is not a competition). When signing up you will be asked some basic information about yourself and what you do. You will also be asked how you want to participate: by email, face-to-face, via Skype or by webinar. YOU get to choose. (Why fill this form out and put yourself on the map? Well duh, how else should we track all the great outreach our profession is doing but through a map?)
How do I find a willing co-conspirator in education?
Most likely, as a geospatial professional or student of GIS and GISc, you already know someone who is teaching or working with youth in your community; you know — that teacher or youth leader that everyone always says is so creative (which is code for willing to try new things and likes keeping kids engaged in real world experiences while still meeting the standards and requirements of their job).
If you don't already know someone in education, with whom can you connect? Most states and U.S. territories, as well as most of Canada, have geographic alliances that are funded by the National Geographic Education Foundation. Since their mission includes geography education outreach, they have a built-in audience for geospatial professionals who want to work with teachers.
Have you already been giving public presentations to youth in your community? If yes, GREAT! Share your experiences with your colleagues and make sure your pin is on the map. You are ahead of the curve but we still need to show that you are doing that work!
I know this is important, but I just don't know what to do.
Ask a teacher, youth educator or local homeschool group if you can come in and give a presentation about what you do. Consider doing a little hands-on map creating, or just looking at maps with the class.
GIS Day, a part of Geography Awareness week, is a great opportunity to give a teacher a little break from teaching and tie geospatial careers and work into their classroom. In the education world, the terms "college and career ready" are being used. Guess what? There are GIS careers, jobs that use GIS, and college programs for geospatial technologies that you could introduce to the students. Another great day is Groundhog Day, when you can invite a student to be your "shadow" for a day in the exciting life of "insert your title here."
Just ask any educator what you could do, and they will let you know. They know when they need a break in the routine, and when a guest speaker could help change things up for their students. They can help figure out how you might fit into what the class is learning at a particular time of year. Remember to keep the conversation honest. Tell them you don't want to talk to 100 kids four times in one day if you don't want to. Remember, if you can only do one hour with one classroom, that is a good start.
Do I have to create anything?
Not unless you want to! Guess what? There are resources already made for you that you can tweak for the school, your community and your job. Just take a look at these downloadable activities, PowerPoint presentations and GeoInquiries. If you do have a little time, it's even better to customize the presentation or activity to your locale or what you study. Kids know when you are being authentic, and they know when you are showing interest in where they are from and how things tie into their world.
What do I get out of it?
First, sparking interest in our profession in even one young person will leave you with a great feeling of accomplishment.
Second, geomentoring is great PR for your company, agency or organization. Do a joint press release with the school and have someone take photos. (Be aware that some parents do not permit their children to be photographed like this. The teacher will know who can and cannot be included.) The photos and press release can be posted to your social media channels and your website, and be circulated through the school's avenues, such as school newsletters, student newspapers and the community section of your local paper.
You will likely find that engaged youth, the educator or the youth leader with whom you worked will ask you what more they can do. You can provide them with GeoInquiries, which are free, ready-made, online lessons that can be adapted by you and/or the educator. You might discover that you want to do more, and a larger community service project comes from it. Maybe your company or organization could establish a youth internship program; after all, there is always that data that no one ever has time to clean up or create.
Start the spark, start small, and end big!