Originally Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2009, 7:18 pm
Last Updated: Oct. 14, 2009, 10:43 am

Geography: It's more than memorizing maps

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By Nicole Lauer, nlauer@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
The Augustana College Geography department includes, from the left, Charlie Mahaffey, chair of the geography department, Jennifer Burnham, assistant professor, and professor Norm Moline. Augustana College's geography symposium is marking the department's 60th year. Absent from the photo is assistant professor Reuben Heine.
Photo: Augustana College
Reuben Heine, Augustana College Assistant Professor of Geography
The professors at Augustana College want people to know college geography has little to do with studying the classroom globe or memorizing the states.

An upcoming two-day symposium planned to mark the Rock Island college's 60th year of having a thriving geography department also will help broaden the community's idea of just what studying and working in geography means.

Augustana hopes to attract some of the 500 graduates who majored in geography during those six decades and community members to the symposium Friday and Saturday at the John Deere Planetarium Lecture Hall on campus. More than a dozen alumni and professors will speak on topics that will include flooding, community planning and climate change at the symposium, which will take place during Augustana's homecoming weekend.

Professor Norm Moline has been with the Augustana geography department for 42 years. He worked alongside Edward Hamming, who founded the college's geography department in 1949 and taught in the department until 1968.

Today the department has grown to include four professors chair Charles Mahaffey, Reuben Heine, Jennifer Burnham and Mr. Moline and about a dozen geography majors graduate each year. Those students intern for many different Quad-Cities organizations and after graduation pursue a wide variety of careers.

Mr. Moline said rarely does a student arrive at Augustana with the intent of majoring in geography, primarily because few people continue to study geography beyond the rote memorization of places on the map taught in most junior-high classes.

"All of our majors are ones that come here to fulfill a requirement, then they say, 'Oh, that's what geography does,'" Mr. Moline said.

Mr. Moline said new geography students have difficulty even describing what the discipline is. He said the field of geography is broad and touches on natural and social sciences, biology, business, geology, history, political science and international studies.

"Just like you can have a history of anything, you can have a geography of anything," he said. "It is not an isolated subject. It is a way of looking at the world from a spatial dimension."

Augustana is one of only 20 liberal-arts schools in the country to have a recognized geography program. Mr. Moline said Augustana students benefit from floating classrooms for research and water sampling; summer research trips to the Pacific Northwest, the western Great Lakes region, and the Upper Mississippi River Valley; and a large network of professionals from environmental agencies in the Quad-Cities and northern Illinois.

Mr. Mahaffey has taught with the department since 1978. He said the symposium is a "once-in-my-career kind of thing," and he's not sure really what to expect.

"I'm excited about all of these folks coming back after all these years," he said. "Some of them I've met once or twice; the younger ones, of course, were students of mine. It's fun to see."

Among the returning alumni speakers is Mac McDonald, a '92 graduate, who will speak about "Making Geography Interesting and Relevant for High School Students: Little People Have More Recess." Mr. Mahaffey said changing the way high-school students learn geography is important. He said Illinois doesn't have anything that reflects a progressive learning of the subject; it's more a mash-up of social studies, civics and a little city government.

"Whereas much of the rest of the world, they have a progressive kind of geography curriculum," he said. "When I looked at my kids' geography classes in Sweden (while on his sabbatical), their lessons were much more in tune with what's going on in the discipline. They understand how cities work, how they interact with the landscape around them, and how natural systems and human systems are in a sense interrelated."

He said students in other parts of the world have a better sense of the physical and social side of learning; they learn about making maps, spend time outdoors and collect a lot of spatial data. Students in America are not as aware of these things, he said.

"In some ways, many of them have no sense of some of these ideas of region and place and spatial variables, and how they sort of interact," he said. "You start over every year, and that's our job here."

Geography 60th Anniversary Symposium: A Celebration of Learning, Research and Service

-- When: Oct. 16-17, 2009

-- Where: John Deere Planetarium Lecture Hall, Augustana College, Rock Island

-- Cost: Free

Schedule of events:

Friday, Oct. 16

8:30 a.m. Session One: Water Resources

8:30 a.m. The Colorado River: Many Uses, Major Problems. Presented by Bob Moline, 55, visiting emeritus professor, Gustavus Adolphus College.

8:55 a.m. Human Impacts on Sedimentation and Nutrient Sequestration in the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain. Presented by Colin Belby, 02, assistant professor, University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse.

9:20 a.m. Floodplain Management: Turning the Ship Around to Live With Floods. Presented by Paul Osman, 81, manager, Statewide Floodplain Programs, Illinois Office of Water Resources

10 a.m. Session Two: Resource Analysis and Urban Planning

10 a.m. Land of the Shrinking 10,000 Lakes: Impacts of Drought in Water-Rich Minnesota. Presented by Sandy Fecht, 76, lake level program hydrologist, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

10:25 a.m. Regional Air Quality Monitoring: Some New Research Directions. Presented by Jack Livingston, 88, associate professor and chair, Department of Geography, Geology and the Environment, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.

10:50 a.m. Geographic Perspectives on Planning and Community Development. Presented by Clayton Lloyd, 69, semi-retired; former director of community and economic development, Davenport.

11:30 a.m. Session Three: Geography in Business

11:30 a.m. Location Analysis for Business Success: The Case of Noodles & Co. Presented by Tom Weigand, 85, founder and president of IWI Ventures, Madison, Wis.; co-founder (1995) and former chief development officer, Noodles & Co.

1 p.m. Session Four: Geography Education in Schools and the Community

1 p.m. GIS and Transit Management in Seattle: The Growing Intelligent Transportation Field. Presented by Steve Krippner, 90, King County (Wash.) metro GIS program manager.

1:25 p.m. A Geographer, A University, and a Los Angeles Inner City Neighborhood: Connecting With the Community. Presented by Curt Roseman, 63, professor emeritus of geography, University of Southern California.

1:50 p.m. Making Geography Interesting and Relevant for High School Students: Little People Have More Recess. Presented by Mac McDonald, 92, teacher, North Scott High School, Eldridge.

Saturday, Oct. 17

10:15 a.m. Session Five: Geography -- From Place Names to Global Climate Change

10:15 a.m. Naming of the Landscape -- The Role of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in Standardization of Place Names. Presented by Curt Loy, 74, chief, program and production management staff, Office of Coast Survey, National Ocean Service; member and past chair, Board of Geographic Names.

10:45 a.m. Global Climate Change: Evidence from the Arctic. Presented by Jennifer Horwath Burnham, 97, assistant professor of geography, Augustana College, and former researcher in northern Greenland.