Geographic Perspectives with Educator Ali Pressel

This post was written by Dr. Vicki Phillips

As students are challenged with 21st-century issues, geography is a skill, insight, and vision that allows learners to better understand the interconnected world. Given the complex social, environmental, and political challenges today’s learners will inherit, it is essential that we leverage the power of geography to teach them to measure the impact of our actions. 

That’s why I’m thrilled to introduce a new conversation series in which I’m asking various educators, thought leaders, and other experts in the field for their take on geography, exploring its many layers, complexities, and applications. Through leaning into the importance and full understanding of geography, we aim to inspire both educators and students to better illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. 

My first conversation partner is Ali Pressel, an environmental sciences educator who was just named a 2020 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her innovative work bringing science exploration to students through project-based and outdoor learning (congratulations, Ali!). She continues to develop innovative and novel ways to engage students in their community and help them make connections between the natural world and their personal stories. Here’s what geography means — in all its iterations — to Ali:

A selfie of educator and 2020 Emerging Explorer Ali Pressel. Photo by Ali Pressel

Vicki Phillips (VP): What does geography mean to you?

Ali Pressel (AP): Geography means better understanding your sense of place and purpose; making deeper connections in space and time with your presence in the larger world around you. 

VP: Geography helps build bridges and create connections. How do you see this play out in your work?

AP: Geography helps students in environmental sciences explore their human connection to local ecosystems in our community. 

Students use geography in our classroom to map habitats within our school campus and understand how those habitats connect to larger ecosystem spaces within our neighborhood. They use geography to study spatial relationships with nearby waterways in our community, understanding freshwater and saltwater influences and how human practices influence those waterways. They use geography to track changes in land management in our community and identify how human populations relate to land-use changes and habitat fragmentation from human development.  

An enhanced understanding of spatial connections through geography enables students to have a better sense of place and purpose for how they can help foster innovative solutions to local community needs.

VP: How is geography relevant to 21st-century thinking and what might we do differently with geography in mind?

AP: 21st-century thinking involves critical thinking skills, student engagement in community programs and practices, and enhanced student voice to encourage agents of change.  

It is critical for students to make connections during their educational journey so that they can address problem-solving skills in careers and future pathways. 

Students can make geographical connections when teachers and community members provide real-world, relevant community issues and encourage students to develop innovative solutions to solve these community issues. National Geographic Education has excelled in this initiative with programs such as the GeoChallenge, the Geo-Inquiry Process, and the Service-Learning toolkit. These program initiatives are targeted perfectly for geography awareness in and out of the classroom. Now to encourage more classrooms to get involved in their own communities with these programs! 

VP: Where/how do you see geography playing out in the news/world today? How can we connect geographic thinking to solving the world’s most pressing problems?

AP: Land Management and Land-Use Changes: Human population and development pressures in case studies throughout the world — local, national, and international examples abound for understanding land-use changes (yet very few classes focus on land-use change as a unit of study or even incorporated into individual lesson plans).

Freshwater Resource Access Worldwide: While this topic has been addressed very well by National Geographic publications and other resources, it is still not a prevalent topic within classrooms and yet has direct connections to geography — again in a variety of local, national, and international case studies. 

VP: What geography fact fascinates you the most and why?

AP: 90% of Earth’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere. This fact provides discussion opportunities for human population influences, habitat changes, human development, demands on natural resources, impacts on climate and weather patterns [including climate change and species impacts (both migratory and stationary)], and comparisons of all these impacts based on locations across the world from North to South. 

ESRI summarizes the study of geography extremely well with the phrase, The Science of Where. This particular phrase is easily relatable to geographic connections all around our world. The Science of Where is also easily relatable to younger audiences and easily integrated into more subjects, making the study of geography seem attainable within more classrooms and age groups. I continue to use it with my students in our classroom and consistently find ways to relate back to the phrase throughout our school year with multiple lessons and project initiatives. 


Looking for more stories, ideas, and lesson plans about teaching geography? Click here! And share your definitions of geography on social media — use #ThatsGeography and tag @NatGeoEducation to join the conversation.