To know Tim Needles is to know an art teacher who doesn’t shy away from taking creative risks to unlock his students’ artistic potential. Earlier this year, he transformed himself into Vincent van Gogh’s portrait of postman Joseph Roulin, and challenged his students to come up with their own versions.
From fine art to digital drawings, Tim has many inspirations. But one of his greatest muses? Science. He often infuses STEM into his art classes at Smithtown High School East in St. James, N.Y. as a tool for his students to creatively connect with complex issues and reimagine them as visually captivating pieces. To inform their latest art project, Tim’s class is using geography to map storm drains in their Long Island community, an exercise that led to a surprising revelation: the storm drain water from their own homes was flowing directly into the nearby river, contributing to pollution.
“No one, including myself, really knew where the water ended up,” Tim said. “It was one of those moments where everyone was just totally engaged and enlightened.”
One might think Tim is unique in his approach but new data shows that hundreds of educators not only share his passion for geography, but also infuse it into their lessons to create cross-curricular learning experiences.
In a recent National Geographic Society survey of U.S. educators, nearly two-thirds of participants (62%) said teaching geography was “extremely important.” The survey captured a cross-section of pre-K to 12th grade educators of varying ages, experiences, and subjects taught. Strikingly, the poll found that 74% of non-geography teachers have integrated geography into their curricula across a wide range of subjects, from biology, environmental science, history, literacy, visual arts and religion to—one might be surprised to find—performing arts. As one educator noted in the survey, “I teach music, so we study the locations and people…associated with the songs we learn.”
The links between geography and other subjects are endless. In literature, for example, consider the connection between John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the Dust Bowl, or a history lesson on Machu Picchu and the engineering feats of the Inca people. One surveyed educator said: “All subjects relate because everything we study is connected to a place—whether you look at the carbon cycle across the globe or how ancient Koreans created celadon porcelain glaze.”
This school year alone, at least half of the surveyed educators said they plan to incorporate geography into their curricula, and many with a focus on tough-to-teach topics such as racial injustice, climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, why is learning about geography so critical to educators? One participant said, “Learning about our world allows us to learn and express empathy, and it builds kindness in humanity.” Another educator phrased it this way: “Because of the scope and breadth of what geography encompasses, students need to see the connections between all of these to better understand the world, its cultures, its connections and its beauty.”
Overwhelmingly, the survey showed that educators shared one common sentiment: geography is essential to deepen student learning. When young people learn about geography, they build critical thinking skills to analyze complex human and natural systems with a richer, broader lens—regardless of the subject at hand. So, whether educators are using music, maps, or some other teaching tool, lessons infused with geographic thinking are key for students to draw connections, and grasp nuance and context about our interconnected world.
It’s a set of skills that Tim saw come to life for his 9th-12th graders during their recent project. “[We] saw the place where we lived in a different way,” he said. With maps, his students not only identified where and why water pollution was happening locally but, then used their findings to go one step further. The class transformed the data into a painted mural, now hanging in their local town hall. They’re also developing smaller murals, which they aim to display near local storm drains to shed light on this issue. Tim added, “It was a way for us to take action and make a greater impact.”
After more than 35 years in education, I’ve seen countless stories like this one, which underscore the role that geography can play. Through a well-developed set of perspectives, geography unlocks the information we need to better understand our world, and empowers us to think critically about our own role in it. This is, perhaps, one of geography’s greatest contributions: it gives us the tools to make a meaningful difference in the world.