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Bridging the Digital Divide

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Tomorrow’s Geographers Need the Best Tools Now

The Bridging the Digital Divide (BDD) program was created in mid-2020 by the American Association of Geographers, to quickly address the technology needs of geography students at minority-serving institutions, as COVID-19 disrupted their learning environments. In 2020, BDD provided $238,000 in equipment and software assistance to faculty and students at 23 institutions, including 8 Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), 14 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and 1 predominantly Black institution.

Mark Barnes, Associate Professor, Department of History, Geography, and Museum Studies, Morgan State University“Now, because of AAG’s Bridging the Digital Divide Initiative, impacts of the global pandemic may better be met by our department in the months and even years to come….The gesture truly creates a win-win situation for Morgan State University, other HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions invested in making geography an indispensable component of our liberal arts endeavors.”

— Mark Barnes, Associate Professor, Department of History, Geography, and Museum Studies, Morgan State University

 

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The COVID-19 crisis aggravated a longstanding problem for students of color, for whom access to technology is a career-threatening challenge. In partnership with Esri, AAG is continuing the BDD program to close this critical access gap for geography students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Help us create a future in which the next generation of geographers is more representative of the places and people where geography’s most crucial work is located.

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An AAG survey of student members this year showed how COVID-19 has affected their learning environment and access to technology. Students of color have experienced these effects even more acutely, due to inequities that existed before COVID-19.

 

BDD’s first round of equipment grants in 2020 helped students in more than 95 geography courses gain access to laptops, internet connections, software, and other equipment, while also enabling a few faculty to offer socially distanced classroom and fieldwork experiences through the use of advanced technologies such as virtual reality (VR) headsets and action cameras.

 

Your Support Makes All the Difference

As AAG prepares for the second phase of this program, we are seeking out additional institutional partners to continue to grow the initiative. We also rely on the support of our 12,000 members worldwide—geography instructors, faculty, students, and professional geographers in the public and private sectors—to help us secure greater access to the critical tools of learning for the next generation of BIPOC geographers. Even if you can only give a small amount, your support helps us demonstrate our members’ commitment to this initiative, which is vital to attract greater support from partners.

Mandy Guinn, Environmental Science Chair, United Tribes Technical CollegeMinority-serving institutions, including TCUs, are up against some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced. Although food security, financial stability, and academic preparedness are issues that the TCUs have always faced, COVID-19 has exacerbated those issues and also created additional concerns of isolation and lack of connectivity. With $10,000 from the Bridging the Digital Divide fund, we purchased laptops, webcams, wifi, Microsoft Office, and ArcGIS licenses. With additional funding, we could purchase more …”

— Mandy Guinn, Environmental Science Chair, United Tribes Technical College

 

As campuses enter into a new era of belt-tightening, we can anticipate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to hamper many students’ access to technology—adding to decades-long racial disparities. We count on our members and partners to help us realize the vision for a level playing field for young geographers of colors, enabling them to access the tools they need to succeed.

BDD is part of AAG’s Rapid Response to COVID-19 which is dedicating nearly $1 million in Council-designated funding from AAG’s reserves to help support and stabilize the geography discipline during the COVID-19 crisis, while also addressing long-standing systemic issues and inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Equitable access to equipment and connections is but one such issue, yet it is one that we know can be remedied immediately with resources.

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Encoding Geography

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An AAG initiative to increase diversity and computational literacy among all geographers to strengthen our discipline for the future.

Goals of the initiative

Under the Encoding Geography initiative, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) will lead long-term and synergistic efforts to equip all geographers with a sufficient level of literacy in computational thinking and, in doing so, aim for a more diverse participation in our discipline. These efforts will ensure that current and future generations of geographers remain at the forefront of discovery, exploration and understanding of the Earth within an era that is undeniably technological and in which we are interconnected as much through computer code as in other ways.

How will this initiative benefit all geographers?

To broaden the diversity of geographers and to equip them with computational skills is to safeguard our discipline’s continued contributions to the national innovative ecosystem. While it may be true that not everyone needs to know how to write extensive code, geographers who understand what code can do will be able to build connections to other disciplines such as computer science and engineering and lead the way in idea creation and implementation.  This initiative seeks to increase the vibrancy of geography in the following four ways.

First, geographers will gain productivity in the rapidly growing geospatial technology industry. Jobs in this industry increasingly require basic computer programming skills including the automation of GIS tasks, the extraction of qualitative spatial data from social media, the development and management of real-time geodatabases, the manipulation and analysis of spatial big data and, the development, design and management of web-based GIS and geo-visualizations. A 2017 global impact study on geospatial services estimates that this industry creates approximately 4 million direct jobs and generates 400 billion U.S. dollars globally in revenue per year (AlphaBeta, 2017).

Second, geographers will be better prepared for graduate school and/or academic careers. In academia, researchers are increasingly using computational skills for data analysis, modeling and/or to develop research-specific applications and software (Merali, 2010). Consequently, computational thinking is becoming necessary as a preparation for graduate school not only because students will have to write code, but also because they will have to understand code.

Third, geographers will be better equipped to develop a commercial and social entrepreneurial mindset. Geographers already possess an interdisciplinary skillset that gives them great potential to lead organizations and/or scientific research in developing innovative geographic analytical technologies for global challenges such as climate change and international migration crises. Computational thinking will foster their entrepreneurial mindset by understanding the capabilities (and limitations) of computer science to implement their innovative geo-ideas and visualizations through code and further disseminate them through the web.

Fourth, geographers that are more diverse and inclusive will boost the advancement of geographic knowledge and innovation of geospatial data and technologies. Given the evidence that the underrepresentation of women and minorities in geography translate into the workforce (Mazur & Albrecht, 2016) and limits our advancement of geographic and scientific knowledge (Stephens, 2013), broadening their participation will leverage currently untapped potential for innovation in terms of talent and labor force.

How will this initiative benefit society at large?

The social and environmental challenges we are facing are complex and interrelated and addressing them will require continued innovation within our discipline to further advance geographic knowledge. Geographers’ expertise is necessary, particularly their expertise in geographic information, training in spatial thinking and knowledge of the unique challenges associated with spatial data. This expertise is crucial in the analysis of new sources of qualitative and quantitative spatial data, such as those from social media and from high precision remote sensing. Associated with these new sources of data is the automation of tasks and geospatial analyses, which have triggered an increase in the demand for graduates with training in both geographic information and computer programming, but they are hard to find. As a consequence, employers across the public and private sectors face the dilemma to either hire a geographer with limited or no computational skills, or a computer science graduate with limited or no expertise in geographic information or training in spatial thinking. Courses that involve computational thinking are only beginning to appear in geography curricula, yet much is unknown about the effectiveness of these courses in preparing students for the rapidly evolving job market or for the social and environmental challenges we are facing. Additionally, much is unknown about the diversity of students in these more technical computational courses and their motivations to enroll in them. There is however, evidence of an overall underrepresentation of women and minorities in geography education. While this initiative is in the early stages of development, a long term goal is to foster coding knowledge and comprehension not just in geography at large, but also to work towards greater inclusion in geography courses and careers as well as a more diverse discipline.

Get with the Program(ing)!

At the AAG 2018 Annual Meeting there were a series of workshops held throughout the week. The AAG is committed to ensure that new generations of geographers are equipped with the new skills required in order to be productive in our economy well into the future. This AAG initiative included involvement from faculty, students and employers.

This was part of a series of workshops related to the AAG’s Coding Initiative. The challenges associated with Big Data and the ubiquity of spatial data have triggered an increase in the demand for graduates with both spatial thinking and computer programming skills. Because few geography graduates receive training in computer programming, many employers in the geospatial technology industry face a dilemma: either hire a geographer with limited or no programming skills, or a computer science graduate with limited or no training in geography, spatial thinking, and GIS.

For more information or to get involved, contact Coline Dony

In this workshop, we provided faculty with resources to help them include small GIS and/or coding activities to their courses even if they do not have a GIS focus. The resources and software platforms that were suggested were primarily free and open-source. This was followed by a guided discussion with the audience on the new skillset geography graduates require.

Faculty from across the geography spectrum – from those teaching human and social geography to those teaching physical geography and Earth Sciences – were invited to attend this workshop.

Held Wednesday, April 11, 2018 from 10 to 11:40 AM

In this workshop, we provided data on jobs for geographers and trends regarding needs for programming skills. This was followed by a guided discussion with the audience on the new skillset geography graduates require. We ended the workshop by sharing resources employers can use to train their geographers with necessary computer programming skills.

Any employers – from big corporations to small associations – who hire geographers are invited to attend this workshop.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 from 1:20 to 3:00 PM

In this workshop, we provided a summary of the benefits of learning computer programming for your job prospects, geography projects, and/or research and graduate school. This was followed by a guided discussion with the audience on barriers and challenges to learning computer programming. We ended the workshop by sharing resources you can use as a geographer to learn computer programming.

Students from across the geography spectrum – from those interested in Human and Social Geography to those interested in Physical Geography and Earth Sciences – are invited to attend this workshop.

Held Wednesday, April 11, 2018 from 3:20 – 5:00 PM

In this workshop, we will present information about the gender gap in geography and GIS and a summary of the benefits of learning computer programming for your job prospects, projects and/or research in Physical Geography and Earth Sciences. This will be followed by a guided discussion with the audience on barriers and challenges to learning computer programming. We will end the workshop by sharing resources you can use as a geographer to learn computer programming.

Students interested in Physical Geography and Earth Sciences are invited to attend this workshop. Women and minorities are especially encouraged to attend.

Held Thursday, April 12, 2018 from 3:20 – 5:00 PM

In this workshop, we presented information about the gender gap in geography and GIS and a summary of the benefits of learning computer programming for your job prospects, projects and/or research in Social and/or Human Geography. This was followed by a guided discussion with the audience on barriers and challenges to learning computer programming. We ended the workshop by sharing resources you can use as a geographer to learn computer programming.

Students interested in Social and/or Human Geography are invited to attend this workshop. Women and minorities are especially encouraged to attend.

Held Friday, April 13, 2018 from 3:20 – 5:00 PM

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