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Bringing the Geography of Oregon into the Classroom
Bringing the Geography of Oregon into the Classroom

For many people, geography is what you see on a map. It’s true that maps are one of the primary tools of geographers, but there’s more to geography than representations of a region’s features. Geography is the study of the world we inhabit, its landscapes, people, places and environments.

The study of geography begins in childhood, in our homes and neighborhoods and expands into our communities, states, regions, and beyond as we gain experience. Geography connects us to the world and helps us understand the place we live, the people around us and the events that shape history. These are some of the ways that geography plays an important role in the education of elementary and middle school. But as school budgets have been cut, resources increasingly allocated to instruction in mathematics, writing, reading and testing focused in those areas, children are spending less time learning about geography and social sciences in general.

Oregon has geography standards at every grade level, but does not require a stand-alone course in geography; instead, the state requires the topic of “Oregon” be taught to children in several grade levels. While the lack of a course requirement in geography is unfortunate, it provides teachers from across the spectrum of educational disciplines the opportunity to incorporate Oregon geography into their lesson plans. With the Student Atlas of Oregon elementary and middle school teachers state-wide have a tool to help students connect the lessons they learn in the classroom to places they’ve been and experiences they’ve had.

The Student Atlas of Oregon was authored by Portland State University Professor of Geography, Dr. Teresa Bulman and Western Oregon University Professor of Education Gwenda Rice, Co-Coordinators of the Oregon Geographic Alliance (OGA). The content of the atlas was developed by a group of teachers well versed in Oregon’s geography education standards, in collaboration with PSU students and faculty from the Center for Spatial Analysis and Research. The atlas was made possible by a grant from the John D. Gray and Elizabeth N. Gray Endowment Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation. The hard copy of the atlas, which is printed in both English and Spanish, contains 48 pages of maps intended to help teachers increase their student’s geographic literacy while enriching other course material. The online versions of both atlases contain an additional 40 maps each.

“We realized some time ago,” Dr. Bulman said, “that the best way to get geography into the curriculum under the current circumstances where geography is not a required course is to get it into other courses: history courses, economics courses, civics courses, earth science courses, literature courses. The teacher in the classroom trying to teach basic geographic concepts and geographic ways of thinking will have the most impact for the students if the teacher is able to provide examples that the student is aware of and has some familiarity with.”

The Student Atlas of Oregon is both a tool to increase students’ geographic literacy and a repository of information about Oregon’s climate, topography, population, forests and vegetation, rivers, dams and watersheds, the Oregon Trail, Lewis & Clark Expedition and much more. With its Spanish language edition and a separate glossary of geographic terminology in 11 languages, the Student Atlas of Oregon is also an excellent tool for teachers with diverse student populations. And in order to help teachers incorporate the study of Oregon’s geography into their lesson plans and make the best use of the Student Atlas of Oregon, the OGA at PSU offers resources for teachers that include free atlas workshops on using the English or Spanish edition of the Student Atlas of Oregon as well as model lessons for use in the classroom.

“We’ve reached thousands of teachers with our conferences and free atlas workshops,” Dr. Bulman said, “and the model lessons allow teachers to draw plans by content or grade level. So if a teacher wants to teach a lesson on climate change in Oregon, forests in Oregon, or an event happening in the community, they can come to the website and find a model lesson.”

For the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) the relationship between Dr. Bulman, OGA, and the Student Atlas of Oregon is unique. Working with Dr. Bulman, IIP established a license for the educational use of the atlas that provides for some of the project’s funding.

“We set up the license specifically to support the dissemination of the atlas,” Joe Janda, Director of IIP, said. “And because of the way its set up, the project receives all of the revenue generated by each license.”

As an educational tool to help students connect the lessons they learn in the classroom to the state, their communities, and their homes, the Student Atlas of Oregon is unique in its form. Unlike many atlases designed for children, the Student Atlas of Oregon takes into account the perspectives elementary and middle school children bring to learning. It focuses on local and regional information pertinent to a wide range of subjects and disciplines and provides information in a clear and concise way. To date, well over two thousand copies of the Student Atlas of Oregon have found their way into classrooms and libraries across Oregon. Educators can order a copy of the atlas in English and Spanish and a copy of the 11 language glossary of geographic terminology at OGA’s website: where educators can also access the online versions of the atlases and glossary for free.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted November 29, 2012