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Volume 19 Number 2

Special Issue: Papers from the National Center for Research in Geography Education's Research Coordination Network

Outcomes of 2016 Grantee Projects

In 2016, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant[1] to the National Center for Research in Geography Education (NCRGE) for a five-year research coordination network (RCN) project. Six goals specify the aims of this RCN:

  1. Catalyze research planning with strong potential to result in transformative research projects in geography education.
  2. Facilitate collaborative research among geographers and STEM education researchers.
  3. Attract more diverse cohorts of graduate students to Ph.D. programs in Geography Education.
  4. Increase research productivity and the knowledge base in geography education.
  5. Long-term growth and stability of the RCN.
  6. Promote the use of research to improve practice in geography education.

One of the key mechanisms for building the RCN is an annual transformative research grant program administered by NCRGE. Funds are to be used to support networking and planning activities aimed at implementing the Road Map Project’s agenda for broad-scale improvements in geography education research (Bednarz, Heffron, & Huynh, 2013[2]). Through this program, NCRGE aspires to strengthen geography education research processes and promote the growth of sustainable, and potentially transformative, lines of research.

This special issue of Research in Geographic Education is the first in a planned series that will highlight the results of projects funded by the transformative research program. The first cohort of transformative research grantees began their 12-month projects in July 2016. Each group focused on a different priority area of research identified by the Road Map Project, yet all featured collaborations between geographers and education researchers from other disciplines. Teachers, students, and educational policymakers also participated in these efforts.

In preparing their articles for this issue, each group was asked to consider two questions:

  1. What is the transformative potential of your area of inquiry for geography education?
  2. What is the value of a research coordination network for building research capacity and capability in geography education?

As readers of this issue will soon learn, answers to these questions vary considerably in relation to the nature of the challenges faced by each group. The available literature was deeper for some topics than for others, which gave some groups a clearer sense of how to address significant gaps or issues, whereas others found themselves getting started in a more exploratory position. Gaining access to school classrooms – where the data are – quickly became a salient obstacle for the groups, which they deftly managed by involving teachers and schools with experience in the Geographic Alliance network.

Moving forward, NCRGE will continue working with the 2016 grantees to build upon the foundations laid by their initial projects. This will include new research grant proposals and the development of a research clearinghouse that will accumulate new datasets, validated instruments, annotated bibliographies, and other resources supporting the expansion of the lines of research initiated by the RCN members. The work of the RCN will also receive high visibility each year at a special NCRGE symposium during the annual meetings of the American Association of Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education.

It is too early to tell whether the foundational work on learning progressions, problem-based learning, and spatial thinking reported in this issues will eventually lead to discoveries that radically transform our knowledge, theories, and practices in geography education. While that certainly is the driving philosophy of the RCN, what matters now is the fact that people are even thinking in these terms. This situation augurs well for the future of geography education. Unlike in the past, we now have the infrastructure, in the from of the RCN, to plan and carry t ambitious, rigorous, and replicable studies across the nation and internationally. 


[1] NSF Award BCS-1560862

[2] Bednarz, S. W., Heffron, S., & Huynh, N. T. (Eds.). (2013). A road map for 21st century geography education: Geography education research (A report from the Geography Education Research Committee of the Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education Project). Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers.

Scaling Giant State Maps: Learning at the Intersection of Mathematics and Geography

Rebecca Theobald, Peter Anthamatten, Lara Bryant, Beverly J. Ferrucci, Steve Jennings, Cathleen McAnneny

Transformative research in geography education requires approaching classrooms with innovative methods to invigorate lessons involving basic skills.  Our pilot project has demonstrated how educators can employ a standardized pre- and post-assessment of student knowledge of spatial thinking, math skills, and geographic content in classrooms in different locations in the United States. While this research project assessed gains in student skills through exploration of giant maps, the project will require additional support to improve the rigor and validity of the study design.  The transformative potential of this project is evident in the capacity-building afforded by developing and testing research instruments and procedures capable of replication across other classrooms, schools, and districts.  Support from the Research Coordination Network has enabled this group to undertake research activities that are potentially transformative.  Otherwise, this group of geographers would have concentrated simply on sharing the map with teachers and schools, rather than investigating how students are learning by using the map.

Using an Authentic Project Based Learning Framework to Support Integrated Geography Education Linked to Standards and Geospatial Competencies

Patricia Solis, Niem Tu Hunyh, Daniel Carpenter, Maria Adames de Newbill, Lynn Ojeda

As one of the most transformative movements in 21st century education, project-based learning (PBL) shows broad promise for teaching and learning of geography with geospatial technologies that is not only effective but also meaningful. However, there is a paucity of research that investigates the value of an international component to PBL for transforming geography learning, particularly linked to national standards, geospatial competencies, or assessment rubrics. This pilot study leveraged a collaboration on open crowdsourced humanitarian mapping to analyze how authentic project-based learning classrooms can be connected internationally to support geographic and geospatial learning. Participants included faculty, undergraduates, and secondary students in both the U.S. and in Panama. Through observations of these learning spaces and interactions, the article identifies key mechanisms and assessments of project-based learning environments involving geospatial technologies. Results point to opportunities for further research that links structured, authentic PBL with efforts to advance “powerful” geographic learning.

Place, Learning Progressions, and Transformative Geographic Education

Thomas B. Larsen, John K. Harrington, Jr. 

Place has been identified as a cornerstone within K-12 geography education.  As a core geographic concept, the power of place situates environmental and human phenomena in a manner that enables specialized and distinctive thinking about locations.  Place exists prominently within the geography education standards and is one of the five themes of geography.  Learning progressions provide an approach to studying how students advance their knowledge about a subject as their intellectual ideas and ability to communicate grow.  Transformative research is a game changer; if a transformation occurs, then the situation is different following a change in thinking.  This essay addresses the prospect that use of the learning progression approach in education research can transform K-12 educational efforts centered on the concept of place.

                We begin with a discussion of what constitutes transformative change, and move on to address transformations in geography and geography education.  Next, we summarize an introductory, one-year effort addressing learning progressions for place within geography education.  We conclude with the idea that while a transformation related to place in geography education has not happened yet, the rare possibility does exist.