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Why Study Geography/GIS

To Understand Our Immediate Surroundings

We all travel the world, be it on a local, regional or even interregional and global level. We all move about in space and thus spatial understanding of our surroundings are of vital importance to us. With each trip we take that is not routine we create an individual mental image of our immediate environment and the more we move about, the more detail our mental map will portray. Studying geography is about filling in some of the blank spaces of that mental map.

A mental map of the writer’s immediate surrounding at Loudoun campus. What would yours look like?

Mental map of Loudoun campus

As we move out of our immediate environment, our mental maps show more blank spaces—areas that we have not registered in our brains. The photo shows a map of our regional environment, the Northern Virginia – Washington – Baltimore Corridor. Our mental map of this region may contain all major cities, certain landmarks and some of the most important transportation arteries but a lot of the area would be left blank.

Map of Northern Virginia

To Become a Global Citizen

GlobeNot only do we move about in space, other people do too. Thanks to modern communication and quick transportation systems the average citizen of the more developed world is exposed to a multitude of cultures and different lands either in their homelands or on their travels for business or leisure. The Northern Virginia – Washington – Baltimore corridor has a thriving regional economy and plenty of work place opportunities, making it possible for us to meet people from all over the world. This cultural diversity is also reflected in NOVA’s and other public schools’ classroom settings; students come from all corners of the world. Wouldn't’t it be great to know a bit more about these “corners of the world”?

Geography teaches about places, about where what is in the world; these places can be on a local, regional, or global level. However, just studying names of countries, capitals and states is NOT what constitutes geography; it’s just the beginning by creating a mental map. Questions asked in geography are such as:

  • What factors make a place unique?
  • How do people make a living?
  • How do or can people interact on a local, regional, global level?
  • What are the cultural values and the status of development?
  • What roles do women play in a particular society?
  • What kind of education does this society provide?
  • Does the society experience immigration/emigration?
  • How do people treat the environment?

Geography synthesizes physical and social processes as they apply to places to arrive at an intricate picture of the diverse cultures, political and economic systems, landforms and environments we find on earth. This includes not only an analysis of the different spatial differences but also processes of the social and economic systems, and the causes and effects of social inequalities.

To Ask Questions Relevant to Location

The following is to demonstrate how a geographer might attempt to understand his/her surrounding and get at factors that make a place unique. Assume you were given the photo to the right without any other information. What are the general clues about this place?

A rooftop
  1. The settlement is located at a mid-sized river;
  2. the river is probably navigable since there is a dam in the picture, and there may be a lock toward the back of the photo;
  3. the river has plenty of water and the plants are green, thus one can deduce that the climate is not overly dry.
  4. the type of houses and their various small sizes point to a relatively old settlement, most likely in Europe (deduced from house style).
A Map of Hirschhorn

Next, you are told the place is called Hirschhorn—a German place-name. A geographer would look at a map and put Hirschhorn in relation to its immediate surrounding. In this case the town is located within a river bend, the river has the name Neckar. Transportation routes of minor importance (yellow) come together in Hirschhorn and meet up with a more important transportation artery depicted in red. Settlement locations in river bends were usually chosen for their protective value. Thus a geographer could deduce that this place might be of medieval origin and possibly had a small castle overlooking the river.

A larger map of Hirschorn

A larger-scaled map would help put Hirschhorn in context with its region—as you can see Hirschhorn is located in relative proximity to the city of Heidelberg, Germany. Heidelberg is a world renowned, relatively small-sized city connected by highway and railway to Frankfurt and from here via air—Frankfurt is Europe’s third busiest airport--to the rest of the world.

This answers the question of Hirschhorn’s uniqueness; other maps would bring to light of how people make a living there, cultural idiosyncrasies, and how they interact with their environment. However, knowing Germany’s relative location within Europe would help you put Hirschhorn into your mental map.