Inquiry, technology and citizen science — these are the three key elements of Rob Langston’s geography philosophy. He uses GIS to encourage his students to think critically about the world, drawing connections between what they learn in the classroom and local issues. Langston has been a teacher for 11 years, currently teaching grade 10 to 12 geography and GIS courses at Neelin High School in Brandon, Manitoba. Langston co-created the GIS course with the local Assiniboine Community College and in his spare time does GIS professional development workshops. Here, he talks about his classroom tactics and the future of geographical education.
What do you want to impart to your students when teaching geography?
The number one thing is just to connect the learning curriculum to the world around them. It works great for our grade ten geography course, in the natural resources unit, a lot of students can make connections to their uncle’s farm or their dad working in the oil industry. I try to make it relevant by connecting it to their experiences.
The second part is that I try to incorporate a lot of technology. I use GIS as a tool in my classrooms to engage students and allow them to analyze patterns and trends. One of my goals right now is to focus a little bit more on inquiry. One of the concepts I try to teach them is the relationship between farmland and major Canadian cities. A lot of major cities are located on farmland so we discuss why this pattern is occurring and some of the issues with that, such as urbanization and how we’re expanding onto good farmland.
How have students responded to technology use in the classroom?
The success of using GIS in classrooms to learn about geography created a level of excitement and engagement that allowed me to co-create a GIS course here. The kids signed up for it and really bought into it. Each year, our students go and compete in the GIS Manitoba Skills Competition. We’ve been competing for ten years.
They’re given a real-world problem and they have to solve it. For example, where would be a good place for a wind farm? Or what would be the best location for an intensive livestock operation? And they’re relevant to Manitoba, real problems and issues that we’re dealing with right now. They’re given a set of data and to manipulate, analyze and come up with an answer. Those are the kinds of issues you can tackle and solve to make the world a better place using GIS.
What do you envision for teaching geography in the future?
I’d like to see more geography education in curriculums across Canada. If you open the front page of a newspaper, so many of our problems are geography-related. I think technology allows students to be more active participants in their future.
I always try to encourage other teachers to use more technology. I’ve been around the province doing GIS workshops, to get them to think a little bit more spatially and critically. I would encourage teachers to get their students out more to do field work and to do citizen science.
Can you give an example of what you do with citizen-science?
Our grade 12 class travelled up to Riding Mountain National Park as part of the Open Water project, where we did a couple “bioblitzes” — looking at the biodiversity of aquatic organisms — in a disturbed stream and an undisturbed stream. Part of that Open Water project is that we’ve been doing a lot of water sampling around Brandon, like marshes and canal systems. So many kids are missing that connection to the outdoors nowadays, it was cool to see them get their hands wet and be outdoors. Everything that they learn in a classroom they can apply to the real world.
It’s a learning experience that as geography teachers I don’t think we get to do enough of. There’s challenges with taking kids out in the field, but it’s so rewarding to see kids connecting that to the real world. It gives it so much more credibility when you go back to the classroom — that what they’re learning matters.