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Why We Need Outreach

While Tennessee has been busy stripping meaningful geography education from the curriculum of K-12 education, the need for geographers and geospatial professionals has continued to grow, leaving students at a significant disadvantage for future careers. Michael Camponovo, GIS outreach coordinator, and students in the GIS Outreach and Community Engagement Lab are bridging the gap between students’ knowledge of geography and geospatial technology with the need for those skills by targeting four different audiences: K-12 students, K-12 teachers and administrators, the public, and university students.

Students learn about the AR SandboxVery few students enter the geography department as freshmen. Most students transfer in as upper classmen after taking a geography elective, indicating the need to promote geography and geospatial technology to students before they get to UT to continue the growth of the department over the last several years. During 2017, Camponovo and his team worked with more than 2,500 students in various outreach activities ranging from college and career fairs to direct classroom instruction. While all geography exposure is good, they prefer to focus on meaningful, long-term engagement whenever possible.

In fall of 2017, they volunteered with Vine Middle Magnet School, a Title 1 school in East Knoxville, through the after school Great Schools Partnership. Staff, undergraduate, and graduate students taught students how to use GIS through ArcGIS Online, collect field data using iPads and Collector, and produce Story Maps that they can share with their families, schools, and communities. These students are encouraged to enter the middle and high school ArcGIS Online Mapping Contest this spring to share what they have learned. In the spring of 2018, Camponovo and his team will continue their support of the newly approved Introduction to GIS course available to high school students across Tennessee. The course is being offered at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro and will be offered at Fulton High School in Knoxville starting in 2018.

“We hope that supporting these students will encourage them to continue their geography and geospatial education and choose our department for the foundation of their career,” Camponovo says.

While proud of the outreach accomplishments geared towards K-12 students they have achieved so far, without greater buy-in from teachers and administrators, the struggle to expand their reach due to restraints of staffing, time, and geography will continue. Through strategic partnerships orchestrated by members of the Tennessee Geographic Alliance (TGA), Camponovo and his team taught more than 200 K-12 teachers and administrators in East Tennessee about geospatial technology. These opportunities range from after school professional development to presenting at district learning days.

Students learn about the AR Sandbox“The most successful program of 2017 was in conjunction with TGA, UT College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, and Knox County Schools,” Camponovo says. “More than 20 teachers spent seven days learning the skills necessary to collect and analyze geospatial data, produce maps and story maps, and incorporate GIS into their classrooms. We continue to support these teachers with classroom visits with our popular Augmented Reality Sandbox, continuing education, and direct classroom interaction.”

Without the support of parents and community stakeholders, students’ dreams of pursuing a career in geography will likely loose inertia. To that end, Camponovo and his team have also been working directly with the public to educate them for the need for geospatial professionals through examples directly related to their lives from ride-sharing mobile apps like Uber to drones and self-driving cars. Family-oriented after school events such as fall festivals, science fairs, and STEM nights have been great opportunities to talk directly with parents.

Recognizing that many UT students discover geography only after taking an elective from our department, they are also promoting geography through a variety of activities on campus. Between hosting special sessions for freshmen STEM students and GIS Day, they are exposing hundreds of students to geospatial technology and its use in a wide swath of disciplines and careers. They also continue to support students from other departments in their need for cartographic and data support.

“The success of the GIS and Community Outreach Lab over the last 18 months is a direct result of both the exciting research being conducted by our faculty, staff, and students as well as the foundation laid by the TGA,” Camponovo says. “As a result of combining our different strengths, we reached nearly 4,000 people over the course of 2017 at over 80 different events. More than 30 of those events included our new Augmented Reality Sandbox. None of this would be possible without the Volunteer Spirit embodied by our department.”

For more information about geography and geospatial outreach events please email