More than 1,500 students from middle schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley learned the importance of geography in their everyday lives as well as the excitement and possibilities in exploration at the first Geography Summit held as a part of the fourth day of Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Sponsored by the National Geographic Education Foundation, the day featured presentations by two National Geographic explorers - Emerging Explorer Mark Olson, plant biologist, and Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia A. Earle, oceanographer/marine biologist - as well as Sandra Diaz, chief meteorologist at the El Paso/Las Cruces FOX television affiliate.
"Our goal is to help kids understand that geography is much more than you think it might have been. You might have thought that it was finding places on a map or a set of dry facts. It's so much more than that - it's big, it's fun, and there are careers and travel with it. We hope some of these kids will leave here thinking that there is an opportunity here that they had never really thought about before," said Barbara Chow, executive director of the National Geographic Education Foundation and vice president of Education and Children's Programs, National Geographic Society.
Chow said geo-technology is one of the fastest growing, emerging fields in the country, citing the now common and growing use of Global Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
"There are 75,000 new jobs a year resulting from the use of geo-technology," she said.
Following an introduction by Yno Gonzalez, president of SBC Long Distance and a UTPA Foundation Board member, Olson took the stage and talked to students about the importance of biodiversity in Mexico and biodiversity exploration.
Olson, who teaches at the Instituto de Biologia at Mexico's national university - Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City, showed photos of landforms, plants and animals taken in the area of Mexico where he does research.
"Mexico is one of the most important places on Earth in regards to biodiversity," he said, noting while it has only 1.3 percent of the land's surface it has 12 percent of the world's birds, 10 percent of world's mammals and nine percent of the world's reptiles.
However, he said there are still thousands of plants and animals yet to be discovered. Olson described a wild corn found recently in Jalisco that does not die, which one day may lead to the development of a perennial corn having great economic implications, particularly for Texas and Mexico where corn is a principal crop.
"There are a lot of strange and exciting discoveries still being made," he said, going on to describe two new species of salamanders discovered two years ago in nearby Barton Springs in Austin. New technology has assisted in these discoveries and is also providing new information on old species and helping to locate "lost plants" Olson said.
Olson, who earned his doctorate in 2001 from Washington University in St. Louis, developed his own unique way of exploring plant diversity - using a powered paraglider, a flying machine that he describes as "like a moped in the air."
While conducting his doctoral research in Africa on a medicinally and nutritionally important plant species - the Moringa plant, Olson discovered that the fractal-like patterns in treetops, rather than the more traditional side view of trees, were biologically more relevant. Concluding the paraglider was an inexpensive way to conduct his birds-eye research, he learned how to fly one.
Olson, who said he had always been interested in plants and animals from a very young age and as a high school student studied sea turtles with a famed researcher, ended his session by telling the crowd that they all should be interested in biodiversity.
"Everything you eat comes from a living thing somewhere in the world. More than half of our prescription medicines come from plants. Global climate changes...are resulting in more violent hurricanes and higher sea levels," he said, illustrating biodiversity's effect on everyday life for us all.
Following Olson's presentation, Hagen Streckel, a geography teacher at Copperas Cove High School, near Killeen, Texas representing the Texas Alliance for Geography Education and the Gilbert M. Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education at Texas State University at San Marcos, moderated a hands-on activity using remote sensing images created from aerial and satellite/spacecraft photographs and pictorial representations to allow students to explore Texas from a new point of view.
Divided into small groups and armed with a Texas road map and various other state maps showing land cover and habitation as well as local maps - some infrared - of the Valley and Edinburg, the students answered a series of questions using the tools they were given.
The floor was a flurry of activity and fun as students huddled over the materials to come up with answers requiring thought and interpretation skills.
"The greatest challenge I have as a geographer teaching freshman geography is making connections that everything is interconnected and related to itself. You can't be at home without having a link to somewhere else - our clothes, our food - everything you interact with is connected to someplace else," Streckel said.
Chow said the geographic alliances, now in 45 states, are based in universities and put together statewide networks of K-12 teachers and help with geography curriculum, content and teacher training. She said the HESTEC Geography Summit is the Foundation's first attempt to teach the importance of geography in this manner.
Lizette Gomez, a seventh grade student at Ringgold Middle School in Rio Grande City, said she learned how important geography is and about discoveries we did not know about. "I am excited to learn new things," she said.
Also in the seventh grade at Ringgold Middle School, Jennifer Chapa, who wants to be a marine biologist, said she enjoyed the day. She was in an activity group assisted by Olson.
"I like geography a lot. Mr. Olson was cool - he helped us out. Coming to HESTEC makes me feel smart," she said.
Middle school students also got a glimpse of ocean life and plunged into discovering the sea when Earle, an oceanographer and marine biologist who has logged more than 6,000 hours underwater and who holds numerous diving records, spoke to students about the need for more research on the ocean and how it affects other parts of their lives.
Earle asked students to hold up their maps and examine the "blue planet," otherwise known as Earth. "You'll see very quickly it's the ocean, not the land that dominates," she said, noting the relationship of the ocean to climate and weather, among other things.
"I was swept off my feet by a wave when I was three and have been in love with the sea ever since," Earle said. "What's really fascinating though is not just the water, but life in the sea. The sea is filled with creatures from the surface to the greatest depths."
As possible future oceanographers, Earle told students about the importance of having qualified people to study the ocean because so little is known about it.
"The ocean has a lot of mystery and a lot of work left for people to do," she said, as she offered advice on becoming a scientist. "The principle behind being a scientist, an engineer or a better human being is to never stop asking questions and never give up that sense of wonder that is present with all living things."
Students also watched videos which gave them a sneak peak at life under the sea and a hint of what experiences a career as a scientist could offer.
"You have come at a time when we have knowledge about the magnitude of what we need to know about the skies above and the depths below," she said, while noting that only five percent of the ocean has been explored. "Yes, we should reach for new heights, but we should also consider the new depths and consider going onward and downward."
Dallas Dawy, a seventh grader from Vernon Middle School in Harlingen, Texas, thought Earle was very interesting and found her working environment to be an asset when thinking about choosing a career. "She doesn't have an office she has to go to everyday. Her office is in the ocean and that's pretty neat," she said.
Students also tuned in to Diaz, as she gave a lesson on the different weather patterns in the United States' regions and discussed the devastating forces of nature that have caused major death and destruction in the nation.
"The field of geography encompasses so much more," Diaz said. "What I'm interested in (as a meteorologist) is how weather is affected by geography."
During the presentation, Diaz revealed to students some of the most extreme weather patterns in history from the hottest temperature - 134 degrees - recorded in Death Valley, Calif. in 1913 to the most recent category five hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Closer to home, Diaz talked to students about the extreme weather patterns in the Rio Grande Valley, particularly the White Christmas South Texas experienced in December 2004.
"Here in the Texas Valley we are no strangers to extreme weather events. Do you remember last year's Christmas? That is when a northern blew cold air into the region and for the first time in 110 years South Texas experienced a White Christmas. That was quite outrageous and a sight. Snowfall totaled from three to 13 inches across the Valley," she said.
Diaz, who grew up in El Paso with dust storms, said her desire to know the cause and effects of severe weather steered her to the field of meteorology. A graduate of Texas State University in San Marcos, Diaz received a Bachelor of Science in applied and physical science. Her first job in broadcasting was as an intern at Austin's KTBC FOX7 weather department.
"I have to say that my internship was just as important as my college education. It was there I decided to pursue a career in broadcast meteorology," she said.
She told students to continue learning and not be afraid of change just as the changes in the weather. Diaz recommended students get a higher education with an emphasis on math and science and also apply for internships with local television stations to start building a résumé.
"Don't be afraid of new experiences. Sure change is scary and challenging, but in the end change can lead to some of the best moments in your life. I truly feel you should always strive to learn more, so never stop learning," Diaz said.
Glenda Quintanilla, an educator at Travis Middle School in McAllen who accompanied seventh grade students to the Geography Summit, said UTPA should offer more types of these educational activities for middle school students to motivate them to think about their future.
"We never got this kind of stuff when we were kids so this is a great opportunity for these kids," Quintanilla said. "I told my kids to take the information the guest speakers say to heart because we can't be successful in this day and age without a bachelor's degree."
Michael Ocaña, seventh grade math department head at Travis Middle School, said he was impressed with the caliber of speakers at the event and planned on taking what he learned along with the students back to the classroom.
"This is great exposure for the kids to real life situations in careers and college-bound information," he said. "The science teachers plan on taking back all the information and the maps they received, which were all interrelated and very good."
Joe Garcia, interim director of GEAR UP, said the National Geographic Geography Summit was a great way to get students involved in the sciences.
"We are trying to get them excited, to see that it's fun. I think we are doing a great job today," he said.