June 13, 2024
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Covering ground: Teaching geography for all ages

Adam Mathews, Binghamton alum and children’s book author, returns to campus as professor of geography

Associate Professor of Geography at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences Adam Mathews at his office in Old Johnson Hall. Associate Professor of Geography at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences Adam Mathews at his office in Old Johnson Hall.
Associate Professor of Geography at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences Adam Mathews at his office in Old Johnson Hall. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

“A” is for “apple” in most elementary classrooms, but that’s not the case with Adam Mathews’ 2022 book, ABC’s of Geography. Instead “A” is “Andes,” B” for “body of water” and so on.

Although Mathews wrote the book specifically for children, its use goes well beyond that.

“These books are not just about the kids, right? It’s also about their parents, their caregivers — they’re the ones that are taking this in as well,” he said. “If it means that someone down the road has in mind that [geography] is an option, I’ve done my job. That’s what I would hope for.”

Adam Mathews is an associate professor of geography at Binghamton University. He grew up in the Finger Lakes region and received his bachelor’s degree from SUNY Cortland in 2007; in 2010, he received a master’s degree from Binghamton University and went on to earn his doctorate in geographic information science from Texas State University. Before returning to Binghamton, Mathews taught in Texas, Oklahoma and most recently Michigan.

Mathews has two children; when the first was born, he found Optical Physics for Babies by Chris Ferrie. Mathews brought the book to the classes he was teaching, since some of the topics covered in the book were introductions to those he was covering for undergraduates. Using the book to discuss science communication, he said, was a perfect in-road to discussing the broad-ranging and important work that geography majors can do.

In many states, geography isn’t taught in K-12 schools, or at least not explicitly called as such. It is for this reason, Mathews believes, that many people don’t discover a passion for the field until much later in their college careers.

“Often in geography, when we get majors, we don’t get them until you declare a little bit later on,” he said. “Students have no idea it’s even an option. The geography department [at Binghamton] does a lot of general education classes; students take one and it opens their eyes: ‘Now I’m seeing in this geography context, I like this.’ And then, usually, they take one more class and that can sometimes seal the deal.”

Growing up, however, Mathews was one of the lucky ones: He found his passion for geography early on. His uncle, who worked for a town highway department, heard about a digital mapping system known as geographic information systems (GIS), which is used to manage roads.

“He knew I liked maps and he knew I liked computers. And he said, ‘This may be of interest to you,’” Mathews said. “I looked at it and thought it seemed neat. I got into the field as an undergrad and found out I loved it. That is a rare case in geography; you don’t get that often.”

His passion turned into a vocation. Working with middle schoolers, he explored how to improve geographic concept learning through hands-on play with Play-Doh and LEGOs. His portfolio also includes an improvisation workshop at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science on how best to teach complex topics to everyday people.

“Geography is holistic. It covers lots of things. It can branch out to social sciences and natural sciences; there’s aspects of biology to it. There could be aspects of sociology, even the humanities,” Mathews said. “Instead of being really specific in some technical area, it means you’re a generalist. You can branch out and do a bunch of different things. You’re flexible, you can adjust.”

Many of Mathews’ projects rely on satellites to collect data, which can then be mapped with two- or three-dimensional figures. Remote sensing can help with a variety of tasks — mapping ice, water or the atmosphere, for instance — but Mathews mainly uses it to investigate how urban areas transform over time. Finding out how cities change, from population growth to access to green spaces, is possible with these tools.

Other projects use drones to collect information about vegetation. One project funded in Australia, for example, investigated how temperature changes will affect grape-growing areas. Focusing on agriculture and forestry, Mathews can see how crops perform over time.

“You can use drones and do what’s called photogrammetry; basically, when you take a bunch of different angle photographs, you can generate three-dimensional data just from the photos. You can use that to create terrain models and look at how terrain changes,” he said. “Drones provide this amazing, easy to use and relatively cheap technology to get very detailed data to answer questions that we really couldn’t answer just a few decades ago.”

For now, Mathews is excited to be back at Binghamton. He hopes to take his geography research beyond computational data into something with direct, real-world applications.

“I want to move more into the qualitative space: How can we take this quantitative information and talk to the people in the city and see how we can actually improve things? I think if we really can integrate the qualitative, on-the-ground component, you really have more impact,” he said. “People can see what you’re doing and see what you’re finding, and that’s where the science communication part comes in.”