Powerful Geography
Conference Wrap Up

Conference Wrap Up

Powerful Geography Conference Wrap-Up

by Tommy Larsen


On 1-4 November 2018, the Powerful Geography Conference convened at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) in San José.  Powerful Geography proposes to use empirical research to better align national- and state-level geography standards to student aspirations and regional job markets.

The bilingual conference clarified the scope and prospect of Powerful Geography.  The event also confirmed international interests to apply Powerful Geography’s approach to Mexico, Central America, and South America.

The three-day event featured 60 participants, 2 field trips, and 2 sets of concurring roundtables.  Its 41 presentations included 1 national speaker, 1 keynote, and 2 plenaries.  The event was made possible through the coordination of the Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education, the National Center for Research in Geography Education (NCRGE), and the UCR’s Department of Geography.


The opening ceremony began with a national speaker address by Mr. Edgar Mora Altamirano, the Minister of Public Education for Costa Rica.  Mr. Altamirano’s presentation was followed by a keynote from Dr. David Lambert, entitled “The Anthropocene, Freedom, Geography, and the Future.”  The University College London professor outlined the importance of conjoining powerful knowledge, the imaginative capacity to think the ‘not yet thought’ (Young and Muller 2013), and geography education to enhance student agency, responsibility, and freedom (Lambert, Solem, and Tani 2015).  The juncture between geography and student capabilities becomes ever more significant during the Anthropocene, an age of accelerating technology, global threats, and culture shifts (see also Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Crutzen 2002; Lovejoy 2017).  Powerful Geography, Dr. Lambert alluded, requires being able to have students better comprehend what Wadley (2008, 650) calls the “meta-issues of the era.”

The first plenary by Dr. Richard G. Boehm and Dr. Michael Solem, "What is Powerful Geography", addressed the purpose of the Powerful Geography initiative and conference.  Boehm provided the audience with an in-depth historiography of American geography education and how the trail of events has led to Powerful Geography.  Boehm emphasized how the Powerful Geography initiative honors geography education’s rich tradition of innovative approaches to large-scale educational reform, including the Guidelines for Geographic Education (Joint Committee on Geographic Education 1984) and Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (Heffron and Downs 2012).  Powerful Geography continues this legacy by contributing empirical research to improve how geography gets into the states (Boehm, Solem, and Zadrozny 2018).

Solem continued and provided an overview of the Powerful Geography research methodology.  The research process includes four components:

  1. Analysis of assessment data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
    • Objective: Construct a base understanding of student deficiencies in geography.
  2. Surveys and interviews with professional geographers.
    • Objective: Explore the types of geographic knowledge used in private and public sectors and for civic engagement.
  3. Analysis of student aspirations from the capabilities approach.
    • Objective: Draw connections between student aspirations and geographic knowledge required for the job market and the future well-being of students.
  4. Identify geography subject matter for future standards that address the educational needs and capabilities of young people and which is important for workforce development, civic activity, and the quality of life in every state.
    • Objective: Improve geography’s alignment with state education standards, diverse student populations, and local job markets.

The final morning of conference sessions began with a plenary by Dr. Osvaldo Muñiz-Solari, entitled “Transformational Learning in Geography. Are we really seeking deep knowledge?”  Geography’s applicability, its power, is a fundamental paradigm in education that is taken-for-granted.  The achievement of a “geo-enabled world,” according to Dr. Muñiz-Solari, depends on empowering geography teachers and their students.  Powerful Geography’s conceptual framework—physical geography, human geography, nature-society relations, and places and regions—acts as a compass for developing the skills, technologies, and perspectives required for enhancing student capabilities.


Two roundtables, one focused on the U.S. and one focused on Latin America, provided a chance for participants to share impressions, concerns, and possibilities for Powerful Geography.  In the U.S. panel, participants discussed how the project will require complex coordination across the country.  Six considerations stood out:

  1. Provide evidence that clearly demonstrates how geographic knowledge is applied in non-academic professional geography.
  2. Examine Powerful Geography’s alignment with instructional frameworks, such as the inquiry arc of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework (NCSS 2013).
  3. Assess how Powerful Geography’s national and state standards complement and add to the National Geography Standards.
  4. Analyze the best practices used by national standards that have enjoyed state-level success, such as the Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS 2014).
  5. During implementation, design simple handouts unique to each state’s educational and socio-economic context.
  6. The sixth and most significant consideration regarded the roles of the conference participants in Powerful Geography’s development and deployment. This conversation has extended beyond the roundtable and continues to be discussed.

Another significant outcome of the Powerful Geography Conference was starting a conversation over how to apply principles from GeoCapabilities and Powerful Geography in Latin America. Participants expressed a strong desire to begin new research collaborations on the capabilities approach in different countries.

The Powerful Geography Conference has given momentum to an original, applied method of geography standards development.  The four research components that Dr. Solem outlined are already being put into effect.  The American Association of Geographers (AAG) has produced pilot data to begin building and testing prototypical standards.  The Grosvenor Center and NCRGE intend to work closely with conference participants to ensure the success of this research.