19 Sep 2016

The Right Stuff

Submitted by geobug

I've been tutoring a community college student in physical geography. (B., you're going to rock that midterm tomorrow; I know it.) It's been fun. I enjoy finding ways to break things down into digestible pieces, particularly for folks who are new to it.

My student is taking Geography 1 at Woodland Community College and while I've never met the instructor leading the course, I must say that I'm totally impressed. She's teaching all the right stuff. Day One she started right in with projections and magnetic north versus true north. I was doing cartwheels.

You never know what you're going to get when someone says "we're going to learn geography." Nine times out of ten it begins and ends with memorizing the the capitals of Europe and rivers around the world.

That sort of thing pains me. Yeah, I get that to a certain extent this is useful information, but these days? If you're not competing in a geography bee, the main purpose of knowing that stuff off the cuff would be that when you're reading the news you have a mental picture of where these places are and how they relate to each other in space. Aside from that, dude, that's what wikipedia is for.

But anyone who is willing to kick it off with an honest appraisal of how difficult is it to take the more-or-less spherical body we're standing on and put it on a two-dimensional piece of paper is tackling this thing from the right angle. We spent time looking at the distortion inherent in different projections, talked about how and why magnetic north jumps around, and why latitude and longitude carve the planets up in different ways. The tutoring session directly following my student's first class on the atmosphere found us sitting over cups of tea while she stared in shell shock over her lecture notes on climate change.

"How do we fix it?"

"Read. Think. Vote. Don't panic. But hey, let's get you through your midterm this week, and save the world in our next session, eh?"

After our first session, which found me drawing meridians on an apple with a sharpee, I got a little smarter about visual aids, and this one proved useful on more than one occasion. So if you do a little tutoring, or if you're giving a talk in a classroom, or whatever, you might try this. I took a dense styrofoam ball from the craft store, a bottle of chalkboard paint, and in an hour's time I had myself an erasable Earth.

Much easier to talk about the Coriolis Effect this way. And it spares the apples.