International Geography and the Case for Civic Engagement, Geospatial Style

August 22, 2018
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Earlier this month, over 1500 geographers from dozens of different countries gathered in Québec City, Canada, for a conference of the International Geographical Union. The IGU was first established in Belgium in 1922, at a postwar time in the world when there was a keen appreciation for sound geographical understanding. The IGU holds a large congress every four years: in 2016, it was in Beijing, and in 2020, it will be in Istanbul. Much of the organization’s work takes place via its Commissions that hold their own activities and meetings.

The Québec City event was an IGU regional conference that was chock-full with paper sessions, plenary presentations, field trips, and substantial time for networking and social meetings.  French and English are both official languages of the IGU and French was frequently heard during the week. Most sessions were held in English however, and listening to the fluency of non-native speakers from a dozen different countries in any one session as they make presentations and engage in discussion is always humbling to those of us who would be challenged to be so professionally expressive in other languages.

An important highlight of the week was the 15th International Geography Olympiad, a global activity that deserves to be much better known than it is. Held since 1996, this year’s Olympiad involved teams of students, ages 16-19, from 43 different countries engaged in multiple days of challenging geographic inquiry. Particularly impressive is the mandatory field work component in which the students are taken to a local field site and are required to analyze a spatial issue, gather data, and produce a proposal that includes a map — not a trivial matter to coordinate for 165 teenagers over the course of a day! This year the Romanian team earned the highest score, Singapore was second, and team USA came in third.

The heavily international focus of this conference provides insights into the priorities and interests that are currently compelling geographers worldwide. How, when, and why young adults engage in geographical thinking was part of multiple presentations. Claire Brooks, a co-chair of the Commission for Geography Education, framed her keynote presentation around the notion of “powerful geography” and a question others have also asked: “What does it mean to be an educated 19-year-old today?”  Brooks highlighted five key geographical areas that can empower wise youth: knowledge of global geo-politics, spatial understanding, inequalities, the Anthropocene, and the capacity to appreciate all of these on both local and global scales.

Empowering geography was also the theme of Sarah Bednarz’s keynote, “Geography’s Secret Powers to Save the World.” Bednarz focused on the ways in which spatial, geographic, and geospatial thinking are powerful agents against truth decay, and collectively are an approach that yields and supports adults who are active and participatory individuals in their respective societies.  Alex Oberle from the University of Northern Iowa described how the use of GeoInquiry projects with middle school students in Iowa resulted in advances in students’ abilities to articulate a process for solving geographic issues in their communities, part of the Inquiry and Civic Engagement component of their educational standards. Activities such as the European SPACIT program and Virginia’s GeoSpatial Semester are other examples of structured and organized approaches for integrating technologies in formal classroom settings.

This notion of spatial citizenship was a recurrent idea at this conference. Citizenship itself has assorted and overlapping ways of being understood and deployed, such as using actions and motivations to differentiate between the participatory citizen, the personally responsible citizen, and the justice-oriented citizen. Those distinctions, and the multitude of other definitions and meanings, are not the central issue here, even though citizenship in each situation has a connection with location.  Rather, it’s the recognition of existing and emerging roles for digital geospatial technologies, whether they are supportive and enabling or divisive and disruptive. Accessing and using location-based information is ripe for ethical digressions, and there are countless opportunities to be self-reflective in our use of digital media.  As Todd Kenreich says in a forthcoming book, Spatial Citizenship Education, “By democratizing geospatial information, digital geography offers unprecedented public access to geospatial data and increasingly user-friendly mapping tools so that even students can design a map that looks, in the words of one student, ‘legit.’” (Shin and Bednarz, p.84).

According to a recent Pew Research Center report on teens, social media and technology, almost all teenagers in the United States are using smartphones, and almost half say they are online “almost constantly.”  The scene is trending similarly in Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. It only makes sense to integrate geospatial digital technologies into any efforts to raise the consciousness of the next generation of local and global citizens, and to ground those experiences in critical and creative geospatial thinking in every way possible.  

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