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Fairbanks-area youths exploring world geography

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Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 5:08 pm, Tue Nov 19, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - “What is where? “Why is it there?” “Why care?” Those are three questions Katie Kennedy, University of Alaska Fairbanks geography education and outreach coordinator, likes to ask students to get them thinking about geography.

During Geography Awareness Week, Nov. 17-23, those questions are asked in classrooms and at public events … a lot.

“Geography teaches critical thinking and problem solving,” Kennedy said. “It’s important to know where things are but it’s more than that. It’s important for students to know how the world works. Geography is not just memorizing place names.” She likened that tool to knowing the alphabet so you can learn to read. “It’s all about why were volcanoes there, noting geographic patterns and so much more.”

The art and science of geography teaches students to look at things spatially. “You can map almost anything,” Kennedy said. “You can take all kinds of data and put it on a map and suddenly, it’s amazing.”

As volunteers visit 28 classrooms this week in the Fairbanks area, fourth-graders are getting to try first-hand Kennedy’s principles. In an activity she created, children piece together a puzzle-like map of the Lower 48 states, then groups of students highlight regions, landmarks, cities, time zones and natural features on their map. At the end of the hour, the groups present their map and information about it to their classmates.

“Teachers love this program,” Kennedy said. “I get a lot of good feedback from them. I just want kids to be excited about geography.

She tells students that for the day they are going to be geographers and create thematic maps. “Maps are cool,” Kennedy declares. “You can map where fans of sports team live, climate, where the most car accidents happen.”

Patrick Foley, an education major at UAF, volunteered for classroom duty for the second year in a row. “I love it,” he said. “It’s fun. I love any opportunity to teach a lesson and geography will be something I teach once I am a teacher.”

He ventured to Anne Wien Elementary School on Monday to lead the map activity with Nicole Eiseman’s class. “My students love looking at maps and globes, both to find and identify their place on the planet, and also to make connections with current and historical events,” Eiseman said.

“In fact, the revised FNSBSD social studies curriculum put a significant emphasis on geography. Prior curricula had fifth graders learning about both the geography and history of the U.S. Now the fourth grade focus is exclusively on U.S. physical and cultural geography, while fifth grade focuses on U.S. history and government.

“From my perspective there is an increasing awareness that geography is more than maps and globes, location and physical features, but rather that the study of geography also includes the human/ environmental interactions. I think the renewed interest in place-based education has helped students and teachers better understand that relationship, “ Eiseman said.

The excitement was evident in Eiseman’s classroom. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could stand on the map and be transported to that place?” one student asked.


Geography Awareness Week events

To celebrate Geography Awareness Week, UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences will host the fourth annual GeoFest from 1-4 p.m. Saturday at the Wood Center.

This is a time for fun, educational, family-friendly, hands-on activities focused on geography. Some of the participants will be Alaska Satellite Facility, UAF’s OneTree program, Arctic Winter Games, Chinese Student Association, Eielson Air Force Base, EPSCoR, 4-H, Georgeson Botanical Garden, MapTEACH, National Park Service, UAF Scenarios for Alaska and Arctic Planning, the Northern Alaska Spatial Data User Group and much more. There will be games and prizes for all ages.

GeoFest is free and parking is free on campus during weekends. 

For more information, contact Katie Kennedy, or 474-6121. 

Visit for ideas on how to celebrate GAW.

Nancy Tarnai is the public information officer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experimental Station.

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