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Faculty Research Spotlight

Michael Solem, Department of Geography

Making Geography Education “Powerful” for Students


“The idea is to acquire data about ‘who’ students are and ‘why’ learning geography is significant, and then provide this information to assist geography educators in their contextual decisions about ‘what’ and ‘how’ to teach."

 Dr. Solem (top row, far right) with Dr. Boehm (top row, far left) and some of the first grantees in our NSF-funded research coordination network
 Dr. Solem (top row, far right) with Dr. Boehm (top row, far left) and some
of the first grantees in our NSF-funded research coordination network

In 2013, the National Geographic Society issued the “Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education,” which included three landmark reports on the status of geography in U.S. education. The reports were written by committees of geographers and education experts to recommend strategies for broad-scale improvements in K-12 geography education. One report I co-authored focused on the need to build capacity for high-quality, relevant, and potentially transformative research in geography education.

Given the ambitious nature of the Road Map Project’s research agenda, it quickly became obvious that implementing the agenda would require organizational leadership to break-down research silos, connect researchers across disciplinary communities, and coordinate their research efforts in response to the many research needs and priorities. At the time, I was Deputy Director for Education and Research at the American Association of Geographers (AAG). While the AAG could certainly help elevate and disseminate geography education research nationally and internationally, it took the addition of Texas State University’s Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education, under the direction of Professor Richard G. Boehm, to provide research gravitas as the nation’s largest producer of geography education researchers. This organizational relationship established a research consortium, the National Center for Research in Geography Education (NCRGE). Today, Dr. Boehm serves as the university’s co-director, and I continue to serve as the co-director of the AAG headquarters.

Powerful Geography workshop with Texas teachers and social studies coordinators, February 2019. Left to right: Maggie Hutchins, Myra Rains, Rosa Salazar, Jo Ostrowski, Robin Sabo, Dick Boehm, Kim Stucker, Marci Smith Deal, Thomas Larsen, Chanda Burch, Whitney Crews, Joann Zadrozny, Amanda Killough, Rubina Pantoja, Sabrina Blankenship, Patty Monroe, Michael Solem, Josh Williams, Charlie Perryman, Mary Curtis (Missing from photo: Jana Poth, Margaret Hamilton, Ben Lewis)
Powerful Geography workshop with Texas teachers and social studies
coordinators, February 2019. Left to right:
Maggie Hutchins, Myra Rains, Rosa Salazar, Jo Ostrowski, Robin Sabo,
Dick Boehm, Kim Stucker, Marci Smith Deal, Thomas Larsen,
Chanda Burch, Whitney Crews, Joann Zadrozny, Amanda Killough,
Rubina Pantoja, Sabrina Blankenship, Patty Monroe, Michael Solem,
Josh Williams, Charlie Perryman, Mary Curtis (Missing from photo:
Jana Poth, Margaret Hamilton, Ben Lewis)

NCRGE’s mission is to build capacity for research that advances theory, deepens knowledge, challenges thinking, and supports evidence-based practices in geography education. One of our core activities is a research coordination network funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1560862). Each year, the Center issues a call for proposals to fund research networking and planning activities aimed at implementing key aspects of the Road Map Project’s research agenda. To date, this investment has supported the formation of geography education research groups in areas as diverse as project-based learning, learning progressions, teacher professional development, geography and civics education, international curriculum research, and geography education in libraries. All these groups are using their seed funding to plan longer-term research and network development.

As an example, one network is focused on the theme “Powerful Geography.” This initiative is a departure from national geography standards that set the same learning goals for all students, in all schools, in every state. In practice, this “top-down” approach to geography education has largely failed to shape state and local curricula and improve student achievement. Since 1994, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has repeatedly reported low levels of student proficiency in geography, especially among minorities: Hispanic eighth-graders as a whole have barely scored above the “Basic” proficiency level (defined as partial mastery of subject matter), whereas African American students as a whole have never even reached the “Basic” proficiency level.

Research can improve this situation by identifying “powerful” disciplinary subject matter that students perceive to be relevant and reflective of what they aspire to know, be, and do in the future. Powerful Geography’s “bottom-up” approach is providing teachers with evidence of what makes geography significant from the perspective of learners, using data gathered from two sources: students and professional geographers. The idea is to acquire data about “who” students are and “why” learning geography is significant, and then provide this information to assist geography educators in their contextual decisions about “what” and “how” to teach. On October 19, 2019, NCRGE will host a group of Texas teachers who will create lesson plans using data gathered on student aspirations and workforce applications. They will use these lesson plans to convey the applications and relevance of geography to their students and report their work at a Powerful Geography session on November 22, 2019, at the National Council for Geographic Education/National Council for the Social Studies conference in Austin.

NCRGE’s network includes over 200 scholars affiliated with over 60 universities and research organizations in the U.S., as well as overseas. We welcome anyone with an interest in improving geography education to join the network by completing an application on the Center’s website.

The best advice I can give those wanting to put together their own collaborative team is to read the reports written by NCRGE network members describing various strategies they took to build their teams. These reports have been published in the Center’s journal, Research in Geographic Education.

As NCRGE co-director, I travel on a regular basis between Texas and Washington, D.C. to support the Center’s activities and university’s research mission. While in Texas, I enjoy tubing the Comal River, exploring San Antonio, partaking in the emerging food scene in New Braunfels, and visiting friends in Austin. In D.C., when I’m not working or attending Washington Nationals games, I am primarily a homebody who spends time with my husband Alex and our three cats, Sid, Louie, and Sneaks.