For schools with 'geoint' programs, geography fills more than just a map

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In real estate, the saying is, “Location, location, location.” An innovative program in Loudoun County, Virginia, schools is taking that saying and showing how geography can play a central role not only in many other school subjects but also in choosing a career.

Since 2016, the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) has partnered with several elementary schools in the Washington, D.C., suburb to create activities that encourage skills in geography, spatial thinking and critical thinking and integrate them into the schools’ broader curriculum.

Tricia Furtek, a 3rd grade teacher at Moorefield Station Elementary School — one of three coding immersion schools in Virginia — is the lead at her school. She has taught geography — a subject she loves — to 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders for more than a decade.

A few years ago, the school was loaned National Geographic’s Giant Traveling Map, which can take up half the gymnasium floor. Furtek was dismayed to find that her students, when they were standing on the map, couldn’t orient themselves based on what she had taught them. But the kids loved the experience of moving around on the giant map, trying to identify landmarks and real geographical features.

“USGIF came in and refined how the students could use Google Earth,” Furtek said, “how to find landmarks based on the curvature of the earth’s surface, or based on elements in the background of a picture.”

Last year — in the second year of the program — Furtek got a giant map of Africa and the foundation again came and talked about ways to use Google Earth. Using Chromebooks and iPads, “students had to read about different landmarks in Africa. [They] had to create a route, starting at Timbuktu, and choose” different destinations. The children had to identify what interesting or important sites they would pass, what the landscape was like, basically creating their own travelogues.

“We were able to tie in social studies, science, language arts, reading, plus the use of technology,” Furtek said.

In an exercise this year, the students learned about European explorers. The students were given GPS units, Furtek said, plus a simple map that wasn’t labeled — the way the explorers didn’t have much information about where they were going, she explained. “It was almost like a scavenger hunt … Then we layered on GPS [and] explained coordinates.”

Karen Roche, the principal at Moorefield Station, said the county schools superintendent is actively encouraging schools to implement problem-based learning (PBL). “We’re trying to move away from 30 minutes of math, two hours of reading, 30 minutes of history,” she said. “That’s not the way we work as adults.”

It takes a serious investment in planning, Roche said, especially integrating the curriculum so it’s more meaningful, but she said the children are getting more, and deeper, connections to the subjects. “It is a different way to teach, but the kids look forward to it a lot more, and they can come back and explain much better what they learned,” she said. Roche said all of her students in grades 3-5, approximately 500 children, participate in some kind of PBL.

Lindsay Mitchell, the lead educational manager at USGIF, explained the foundation is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit. “We do higher ed, scholarships, have an accredited program with certification in geoint,” the industry term for geospatial intelligence. “We felt we needed some kind of K-12 outreach, a pathway where they eventually would become geoint professionals,” Mitchell said.

It might seem a bit of a stretch to see these school activities as the first steps on a career path, but many people are not aware that geospatial intelligence is a profession, combining elements of math and science, technology — such as the acquisition of data — and rigorous analytical skills.

“One of our goals is just to get more students interested in geoint,” Mitchell said. “We also want to work with more teachers to see what we can do to make it even bigger, how we can integrate into their existing curriculum.”

Roche said the students are learning valuable lessons that will have lifelong usefulness. “Our kids are becoming contributors, becoming collaborators,” she said. “It just comes organically through this whole process.”

The broader community is noticing. The Loudoun School Business Partnership recently selected USGIF for its “Partners in Education” award to recognize the foundation’s work with Moorefield Station.

Reach the reporter at pwaitster@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @WaitPatience and @edscoop_news.

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