Geography Awareness Week begins November 11 at MSU

Oct 24, 2018

An annual event at MSU is rapidly becoming a tradition on campus, and Geography Awareness Week is right around the corner, kicking off Sunday, November 11th. And as usual, the celebration features an acclaimed keynote speaker, this year Emmy award-winning TV journalist and CNN anchor, Bill Weir. Dr. Alan Arbogast, professor and chair of the MSU Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences is host of Geography Awareness Week at MSU.


Kirk Heinze: Let's remind our listeners about Geography Awareness Week and a little bit of the history and what are the objectives? 

Alan Arbogast: Well, the objectives are to raise awareness about geography. The history of the event, it's a nationwide thing, we celebrate it particularly hard, is that Americans as a whole are poorly informed about what geographers do. It's not something that's well taught in the secondary level in high school. We're trying to attract majors to our program to build the program and to make it more vibrant than it is now.
The department is doing very well as things are going, but we always would like to have more students. Plus, it's relevant work that is needed in society these days with all of the sorts of environmental and economic problems that we face.

Heinze: You and I have talked about this before, but particularly me growing up, there was a certain paradigm about geography. Rivers and capitals and maps and things of that nature. Talk to our listeners about how the discipline has evolved and some of the areas that you've moved into over the years.

Arbogast: I'm a classic example of that. I did not take a geography class when I was in college. I majored in anthropology, and I didn't even know geography existed. I've had conversations with parents who have asked me about their kid. "How can my child get a job knowing the capitals of the states?" But it's sort of a bias that we face, which is one of the reasons why we're doing the awareness week.

In the end, geographers study anything that involves questions of where things are, why they're there, and how they move from one place to another. They have environmental implications. I study sand dunes, as you know. Economic implications. We have a new major in economic geography where people are talking about the movement in goods and services across the country and what the barriers might be from one place to another.

There are just all sorts of applications. Folks who are doing GIS and digital technology in geography, or planning cities, where pipelines go, how traffic flows. It's just everywhere. When anybody walks outside, they're doing geography, they just don't know it. And so what we're trying to do is to promote that.

Heinze: Over the years, the term sustainability and triple bottom line sustainability, those terms have evolved over time as well, but it occurs to me, looking at your majors and looking at what you're alums are doing and what have you, you touch on virtually all of those dimensions of sustainability.

Arbogast: We do. We have alums who are doing all sorts of work in a variety of places. One of my own students at the undergraduate level is the developer of OnStar at GM. So when you sit in your car and you're plugging in where you're going, you're doing geography, and she's very tied into what the satellite network is doing and how it communicates.

We have people in real estate who are looking at location analysis. Why build a mall here? Why put a store there? What are the demographic patterns in that particular area? How does traffic flow to it? All those sorts of things. On the environmental side, we have former students of ours who are working with rivers and streams on how the water is flowing, where pollution might be happening. Where's it coming from, where's it going, and how to clean it up.

Heinze: One thing you emphasize on your website – geo.msu.edu – is that when you're talking to prospective students, your students have the ability to do critical thinking, integrate disciplines, and see the big picture.

Arbogast: Yes, and the thing that binds us together is that we are spatial analysts of how patterns occur across physical space. One of the beautiful things about our department, we're in the College of Social Science, is that we're a great bridge from the natural sciences, which is the kind of stuff that I do, to the social sciences. Like I said, one of our fastest growing majors is economic geography right now, and that has to do with a foundation of business, but also how products are moving from one place to another, whether it be broadband or trucking or all sorts of things, and how you view that in a spatial context in a way that lowers costs, makes movement more efficient, and helps people out.

Heinze: I'm talking with Dr. Al Arbogast. He's a professor and chair of the MSU Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences. Geography Awareness Week is coming up, starting Sunday, November the 11th. Let's get to the keynote speaker I mentioned in the intro. Bill Weir, CNN host and Emmy award winner, travels all over the globe, and he's going to  talk about a very interesting topic.

Arbogast: Yeah, the title of his talk is going to focus on the three happiest places on the planet, where people are most content, getting along, and everything's cool. And in our stress-ridden country we live in right now, where you know, we're always chugging along trying to get to the next thing and make our lives longer, and happier, and healthier, and all of that, he's looking at what really is making people happy in these places.

And that is a geographical question. What is it about those places that is allowing people to live the lives they live as content as they are and for as long as they do? And that falls into the realm of health/medical geography, which is how those spatial patterns influence human health.

Heinze: Part of what Bill does, he travels all over the place, many places that you and I have both been, and you can go online and see some of his reports, but it seems that he's very, very interested in vulnerable people. People who are under various geographical, economic, and environmental pressures.

Arbogast: Yeah, and there's a myriad of examples of that. As you know, he's hosted the show and produced The Wonder List, which is sort of a bucket list of places that geographers would wantto go, anybody would want go, and the gist of it is that there are places on the planet that we should all visit if we can before they're gone, because they are vulnerable for one reason or another.

For example, I know he's been to the Great Barrier Reef, and the reef is under severe threat right now because of warming sea temperatures. Right now, he's at the Mexican-Guatemalan border, looking at vulnerable people who are coming up from Central America in a caravan of folks, it's made the news quite a lot these days, who are trying to make their lives better.

And those are inherently geographical questions.

Heinze: Yeah, and again, he's speaking Thursday at The Wharton Center, November 15th at 7:00 p.m. Usually when you've had these keynote speakers in the past you've had a full house. What are some other things that happen during Geography Awareness Week? Not only at Michigan State, but around the country, Al.

Arbogast: Well, it's just a big promotion around the country about geography and what geographers do. You don't have a business awareness week. There's not an engineering awareness week, because everybody has an idea of what it is that those folks do. For us, on campus, we've been working hard in the past seven or eight years to promote the discipline on campus and to raise awareness about it.

We are bringing in someone from Esri on Wednesday. Esri is a software company that works in high-level digital technology associated with geographical analysis. It's a booming part of the discipline right now. Anybody who has an interest in that kind of thing, working in digital technology, computers, remote sensing, satellites, that kind of stuff, they're going to find a good job. And he's coming to promote that and talk about that and talk about options.

Our graduate students are going to be presenting posters and what-not over at the Union, the kind of work that they do, and if folks were to wander by in the lobby there they would be like, "Oh, this is geography?" But in fact it is, and once people learn about the range of the discipline and the many options that are available, it becomes an attractive place.

Heinze: Well, it's Geography Awareness Week. It kicks off on Sunday, November 11th at Michigan State University. I've been talking with Al Arbogast. He's professor and chair of the MSU Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences. Al, I'm going to come to the keynote as I usually do, but best of luck going forward. I hope you have another very successful week.

Arbogast: Thank you very much. It's an open event to the public at the Pasant Theater. It's going to be fantastic, and I'm really looking forward to it. MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.