Table of Contents
  • Purpose
  • MG Philosophy
  • Unit Components
  • Unit Design Principles
  • Appendix A: What Makes a Good Learning Activity?

    The purpose of this document is to establish a foundation upon which to build Mission Geography (MG). The Standards process taught me several lessons:

    • it is important to begin with a clear set of expectations for the final product;
    • it is important to have a sense of the product development process; and
    • it is important to like, trust, and respect the people you work with.


    We need a clear sense of mission, the scope of our work, and of individual expectations. Constructing that understanding will take time but I believe it will serve us well in the long run.

    However, once we begin to work, we may find that we need to make adjustments. We should remain flexible, open to new ideas, suggestions, and visions, and able to adjust our ideas based on internal and external comments. My experience with the Standards process also taught me about working with bureaucracies. Realize that we are building a coalition among several complex hierarchies. This may be a challenge at times. Be patient with Osa Brand and me as we maneuver our way through the labyrinth of federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and large universities of which we are all part.

    MG Philosophy

    MG is a set of supplemental geography curriculum materials. It is about geography and using geography’s skills and perspectives and NASA's unique missions and results to address curricular needs. We need to be sure that the focus remains on Standards-based geography, and that geography drives the creation of the units, not NASA programs. As we work I am sure we can find ideal topics which connect geography and NASA missions and initiatives and which meet equally well the needs of geography education and NASA.

    Proposed motto: Good geography, good science, good teaching, good learning, using NASA as a vehicle. From Earth space to outer space…

    Unit Components

    Like Mission Mathematics, MG will consist of four or five complete units (sets of curriculum support materials) per grade cluster that focus on the development of key geography skills, perspectives, and subject matter competencies linked to and informed by NASA missions and results. (see MG Philosophy).

    Each unit will consist of several activities. The activities, in turn, will build student knowledge and ability to achieve overall unit goals and expectations. Each activity should strive to be "stand-alone" and complete. However, in some cases that will not be possible. Unit activities may need to be taught sequentially for maximum student benefit. Some unit activities may be appropriate for younger learners within the grade range of each publication, e.g., aimed at grade 1-2 learners within the K-4 set of materials.

    Each unit will include:

    Teacher Background Materials

    The materials in this section of the unit …

    • should provide the knowledge and background skills teachers need to teach the unit
    • should be written in easy-to-understand, geographically precise language supplemented by a glossary,
    • should be accessible, lively, interesting, and complete,
    • should include a brief bibliography (no more than five key articles or books) and
    • should include a webliography. The suggested Internet links will be catalogued on the MG web page using keywords.

    However, the materials cannot serve as a substitute for an inadequate education in geography or earth system science (see Unit Design Principle 8). Therefore, while this introductory information should be complete, it should not be exhaustive. We must grapple with the issue of breadth versus depth.

    Purposes of the Materials

    This section of the unit should include statements of what students should know and be able to do as a result of completing the set of materials. The objectives will be explicitly linked to Geography for Life (both content and skills) and the National Science and Mathematics Standards (see Unit Design Principle 7).

    The linkage to Geography for Life should be at the level of the knowledge statement. The goal is for each unit to include several knowledge statements from a range of Standards. We don’t want to simply say, "Oh, that’s Standard 8." We want to make sure we coordinate Standard-based student expectations to our unit expectations. We also intend to make clear decisions regarding skills/topics assignments to ensure the materials meet significant goals, and do not drift "to the mean."

    Curriculum Connections

    This section is a brief paragraph linking the unit to traditional curriculum topics. This is particularly important in grades K-4 where teachers work in interdisciplinary contexts. It is equally important at the middle and high school level where teachers will need to see where they can "drop in" a unit to substitute for a more traditional topic or set of activities. I suggest aiming for the physical geography and human/environment component in high school where geography teachers often have the weakest preparation and there is a paucity of materials that emphasize processes and systems, key Standards concepts.

    This section will be supplemented by a variety of matrices that may appear in some form in the finished product or on the web site. I envision that we will prepare these matrices as planning documents in the middle stages of the project. They will help us ensure that we select unit topics that are useful and not overly esoteric. One matrix can compare MG skills with skills expectations for a variety of key states (Colorado, Texas, Virginia, Illinois, California, for example). A second matrix might compare curricula to see where MG materials may be used. Eventually we can have a matrix for each state on the web site. The immediate goal is to select topics likely to be taught within the context of "regular" geography and science classes and to make that connection clear (see MG Philosophy).

    Technology Connections

    In the proposal we said this section would illustrate ways teachers can use Web-based resources such as images, databases, and visualizations to teach. I believe we will need to go beyond this. Again, we cannot serve as a substitute for inadequate education, but we can, as much as possible, introduce educators to cutting edge (?) technology by

    • modeling its use in the units, and
    • including hints on classroom management (the one computer classroom; how to manage a class in a lab setting; how to prepare students to interpret satellite imagery, what else?)
    • providing background on the technology (e.g., Web-based, such as a link to a tutorial on remote sensing; as a side panel in the print form)

    We need to build a framework of technologies we would like to feature in these units, derived from the Standards, and a discussion of what would have been included if the Standards were being written today. GIS is in the Standards, but remote sensing is barely mentioned. What key concepts/skills necessary for GIS/remote sensing can we build into our units? We do not want technology to drive unit creation (see Unit Design Principle 9) but we should think creatively about effective ways to model its use. We intend to borrow heavily from skills identified in the ARGWORLD project.

    Teaching Tips

    This section of each unit will include strategies to help both pre-and in-service teachers implement active learning and inquiry teaching strategies and to teach the units (see Unit Design Principle 10). I assume we are going to structure our units around a central inquiry question, with each activity centered on sub-questions. We may wish to use the skills sequence of the Standards (ask, acquire, organize, analyze, answer) as a model. The exact format for this component of the unit needs to be discussed. It is more than a design issue. Should the tips be side comments at key points of the unit? Or should there be a separate discussion of teaching strategies? Both? Additional support will be provided on the Web site to address staff development issues.

    Learning Activities

    The core of each unit is the learning activities. We should discuss format and components at the first group meeting. We may wish to follow the traditional National Geographic model, the Mission Mathematics model, the GIGI model, or some other. Please begin identifying models you think are teacher-friendly, student-centered, and efficient. Assessment will be included as an integral part of each unit (see Unit Design Principle 6).

Unit Design Principles

  1. MG needs to be designed to meet the needs of all students. Equity is an important issue; all our materials should be vetted with an eye to potential bias (gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and thinking style). I hope that Billie Kapp can play an important role here with her Finding A Way experience.
  2. MG should strive to fill curricular gaps. MG is the first major curriculum development project with the stated goal of explicating the National Geography Standards. That presents us with both a set of responsibilities and a set of opportunities. As we select topics we must consider need and uniqueness and not duplicate activities that already exist. To this end we need to coordinate carefully with ARGWorld. The proposal to NASA alluded to the need for curriculum materials to teach Standards 7 and 8, Physical Systems, and Standards 14, 15, and 16, Environment and Society. Guiding all of the development should be an effort to explicate Standard 3, analysis of spatial organization. Another curricular gap that comes to mind is fieldwork. I believe we should include fieldwork as a component of at least one unit per grade level. Seeking a focus for the materials is an on-going project for a subcommittee of Lydia Lewis, David Hill, Robert Morrill and Osa Brand.
  3. MG should be cohesive. We need an overarching narrative or core set of ideas that the units illuminate. These ideas should come from the Standards but we need, as a group, to identify these and to use them as our points of reference, our benchmark, our equator and prime meridian so to speak. In the proposal we identified the need for MG using this statement:

    Earth is the only home that humans know or are likely to know. Life is fragile; humans are fragile. Geography provides knowledge of Earth’s physical and human systems and of the interdependency of living things and physical environments. That knowledge, in turn, provides a basis for humans to cooperate in the best interests of our planet (Geography for Life, 23).

    Are there key skills/concepts in the Standards which we, as a group, feel are especially significant and which we want to use as organizing topics? If we can identify them it may help us to select unit topics and to develop a coordinated structure for the three MG documents. We want MG to offer depth and breadth.

  4. MG units should meet the criteria for a good learning activity proposed by Brophy and Alleman (Appendix A). Most important is that all MG units should focus on doing geography. Active (hands-on, minds on, hearts on), student-centered learning is core. We do need to be cautious that we do not fall into the trap some science education has fallen into, the trap of, "relying too much on discovery through experimentation without a commensurate effort to make sure students thoroughly understand the scientific concepts involved" (Freedman 1998, 8). We want MG units to be fun and engaging as well as serious, meaningful, and connected to the discipline of geography.
  5. MG should use real-world data (obtained from NASA) to develop geography concepts and skills. The data can be supplemented by local data collection (fieldwork) but the idea is for the activities to be driven by data. Scale issues will be important in using the data we obtain and select.
  6. MG should include instructions for each activity about how to assess student learning and an end-of-unit summative assessment. We should aim to feature a range of assessment strategies. Because of print/page limitations, the assessment instructions may need to be in the form of suggestions rather than complete instruments. Three types of assessments can provide models for the suggested assessments: a) NAEP type items; b) unit-related short responses; and c) unit-related extended responses requiring a performance linked to the Standards (what students should know and be able to do).
  7. MG should develop concepts and ideas from Geography for Life first but adhere to the concepts and ideas promoted by other Standards projects. The linkage to the other subject matter standards will ensure congruence across the curriculum. We should make sure our expectations for student performance are aligned with and support those found in the NCTM and NSTA-produced Standards.
  8. MG should allow geography teachers to work collaboratively with science and mathematics teachers as well as other social studies teachers. These units should be geography units with some science and mathematics content. The explanations provided in the Teacher Background Materials should be sufficient to allow a science or math teacher to use the materials to teach geography concepts and skills although probably not as adeptly as a geography teacher. Thus, the idea of collaboration among different content area teachers is important.
  9. Technology is a tool. It is means to and end, not the end. We need to model ways students learn with technology, not about technology.
  10. The units should be stand-alone. We have staff development built into the grant in the form of training-of-trainers workshops and on-line support. However, we cannot assume every pre- or in-service teacher who uses the materials will have access to staff development related to the materials. Therefore, as much as possible, we must build whatever support is necessary into the MG units themselves. We must keep the units simple, or explain and lay-out the materials in such a way that they are easily included in a teacher’s repertoire of lessons.


Appendix A

What Makes a Good Learning Activity?


r Goal Relevance

  • Do the activities accomplish worthwhile goals? Do they focus on important primary objectives identified in Geography for Life instead of constituting busy work? Do they give students many opportunities to achieve Geography for Life expectations?
  • r Appropriate Level of Difficulty

  • Do the activities fall within students' range of ability? Do they challenge students and help them to learn, rather than confuse and frustrate them?
  • r Feasibility

  • Are the activities feasible given the constraints under which teachers work (space, equipment, time, and types of students?)
  • r Cost Effectiveness

  • Do the geography learning benefits justify the anticipated time and effort for both students and teachers?
  • r Multiple Goals

  • Do the activities accomplish several goals? Do they ask students to use higher order critical and creative thinking, inquiry, problem solving, and decision-making skills?

    Do they involve students in activities connected with real life? Do they apply to several Standards?

  • r Motivational Value

  • Are the activities enjoyable, meaningful, and worthwhile?
  • r Topic Currency

  • Do the activities focus on powerful ideas that are central to the course as described in Geography for Life and the curriculum being taught?

    Do they represent new and progressive approaches to teaching geography? If appropriate, is technology used to facilitate student learning?


  • r Whole-Task Completion

  • Do the activities encompass whole tasks, hold together as a set, and build toward major goals?
  • r Adaptability

  • Can the activities be adapted to student's individual differences, interests, and abilities?
  • r Assessment and Instruction

  • Does the assessment evaluate what students know and are able to do with this knowledge in an authentic and meaningful context and provide information that can be used by students to improve their performance? Does the assessment align with the instructional strategies and Geography for Life student expectations?