Although education reform efforts in the United States have focused on basic writing and math literacy, many leaders are increasingly concerned about the erosion of the country’s leadership in the STEM disciplines:  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. For this reason, STEM education is increasingly the focus of education reformers and stakeholders from regional business groups to state governments to the White House science advisors.

In my own outreach work with K-12 students (mainly at the middle school level), the relationship between geography education and STEM education is increasingly clear. Because geography is both a social science and a physical science, the relationships between geography and STEM are sometimes less than clear.

In a recent letter to Dr. John Holdren, one of President Obama’s top science advisors, a coalition of geography organizations makes a strong case for geography and geospatial education as part of a national STEM-education policy. The Coalition of Geospatial Organizations (COGO) includes both the Association of American Geographers and many organizations with more specific, technical missions, such as the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.

All of the groups agree that the current state of thinking on STEM is too narrow in its exclusion of geography. Specifically, they make the case for geographic education, which they note is missing from the PCAST report Prepare and Inspire: K-12 STEM Education for the Future. They make the following arguments for its inclusion:

  • A 2009 White House budget calls for placed-based policies and programs
  • A 2006 Department of Labor report identified geospatial technologies as one of twelve New and Emerging Occupations
  • In 2010, the Department of Labor identified geography as a Knowledge and Skill Area central to employment involving the geospatial technologies it had previously identified
  • The National Science Foundation provided $7 million in funding to geography research projects in 2009-2010
  • National Geospatial Technology Center for Excellence is funded in part by NSF for the purpose of improving university-level geography education; strong geography education in the K-12 sector is a prerequisite for success in these efforts
  • President Obama has said, “We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global.”
  • The PCAST report itself warns that methods for teaching STEM disciplines must be developed that allows students to apply what they learn to real-world problems. Geography is an integrative discipline that is well-suited to this critical need.

The case for geographic education is not limited to careers and technology, of course; as I have argued before my own state government’s education officials, geography is an essential foundation for cultural literacy and public diplomacy as well, and are good preparation for a wide range of both STEM and non-STEM careers.

Suggested activities

  1. Contact education leaders in your state – perhaps starting with the state’s Geographic Alliance – to learn the current status of geographic education in the state.
  2. Review the 18 standards for geography education identified in the Geography for Life project. Which of these are most relevant to the geospatial careers for which the COGO group advocates?
  3. Make a list of the geospatial technologies on which you rely – directly or indirectly – each day. How many e-commerce web sites, for example, employ Geographic Information Systems as part of their interface with potential customers?