Let’s put the Earth back in Earth Day

Story time!

Last year I taught plate tectonics to about 140 high school upperclassmen.  Before I started, I wanted to know what their knowledge of world geography was so that when I referred to the continents, I would know if they knew what I was talking about.  I made a quiz with a map of the world, and asked the students to identify the continents (Asia, Africa, Antarctica, North and South America, Australia, and Europe), major landmasses (Greenland, Madagascar), the United States, and Ohio (where we live).

WorldMercator6NoLinesPrintOnly two or three got them all right.  Most got a few right (usually Africa – I guess it has a memorable shape).  Students who got one of the Americas right usually got the other.

To my shock (and horror?) most had trouble placing the United States and Ohio.

Well, as the Earth Science teacher, and I had to do something about this.  We were heading in to plate tectonics, so we first learned about kinds of maps, then nearly every activity was working with maps, identifying landmasses, and trying to understand the relationships between them.

I would encourage you to find a way this Earth Day to challenge your students: do they know their literal place in the world?  Could they point to it on a map?  I bet most can’t.

Consider: National Geographic found that among young Americans,

  • nearly 30 percent of those surveyed could not find the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water;
  • more than half—56 percent—were unable to locate India, home to 17 percent of people on Earth; and
  • only 19 percent could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons.

They say “Several perhaps interrelated factors affected performance—educational experience (including taking a geography course), international travel and language skills, a varied diet of news sources, and Internet use. Americans who reported that they accessed the Internet within the last 30 days scored 65 percent higher than those who did not.”  (Take the National Geographic Survey here!)

The question we must ask ourselves as teachers, is that what knowledge of the earth do we need to instill in our students?  So much of Earth Day is about the resources of the earth.  While this is great information for students, I’m not sure telling them to shower less is really making them a better global citizen. (And there was this one classmate I had… who should never be told that advise.  Ever.)

How can we incorportate knowledge of the earth in our lessons?  Of our place in it?  When you teach history, do you have a map on your wall you use? Do you and your students interact with it?  When you talk about government, could your students identify your state’s capital and Washington DC? Can they find places important to our world politics? Places like Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea?  Can they identify the other major English speaking countries (Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand)?  How many students on Friday morning knew that Chechnya was in Russia?

Can your students point to a globe to indicate where they are now?  Do they know where their ancestors came from? Can they show you those countries?

When I was a Freshman in High School, part of the final exam was a set of maps.  We had a world map and had to label the continents.  We then had continental maps and had to identify each country and capital (yep, all of them). For the United States, Canada, and Mexico we also had to identify the states and their capitols. (If you’re wondering, I scored somewhere in the mid-80s.  I still remember some of the things that gave me trouble.  Budapest vs. Bucharest, for example.)

I guess I have Carmen Sandiego to thank for that.

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