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History Nerdfest 2017: Using National Geographic Geo-Inquiries to empower students

Yes. I know. The 2017 NCSS conference is over. We’ve had turkey and pumpkin pie since then.

But events on the last NCSS day started to run together and I got seriously sidetracked a couple of times chatting with people that I ran into. So today you get the official final History Nerdfest 2017 post. And thanks to National Geographic, one of my favorites.

You know I love maps, right? National Geographic is all about maps. So anything NatGeo does is automatically awesome.

And their new Geo-Inquiry Process is awesome. Geo-Inquries are designed to help students understand how the complex and dynamic human and natural systems interact in order to help them make smart decisions. Using both “a geographic perspective and the Geo-Inquiry Process students begin to connect complex components, see patterns, and make connections that change their communities.”

It’s a five step process:

  • Ask
  • Collect
  • Visualize
  • Create
  • Act

The goal is to create students with an explorer mindset:

  • attitudes of an explorer – curiosity, responsibility, and empowerment
  • skills necessary for exploration – observation, communication, collaboration, and problem solving
  • knowledge areas – Our Changing Planet, The Human Journey, Wildlife, and Wild Places

Think PBL with a geographic perspective and an emphasis on action. The idea aligns well with the NCSS Inquiry Arc and our state standards – focusing on process rather than just content. This seems like the perfect tool for integrating geography across the different social studies disciplines.

Start by heading to the Geo-Inquiries page but be sure to scroll down to get both the Educator Guide and Student Workbook. You’ll get pages and pages of ideas and resources for creating your own Geo-Inquiry.

The cool thing is that starting next year, National Geographic will sponsor institutes across the country to train hundreds of educators in how to implement the Geo-Inquiry Process in their classroom.  Their goal is to have over 1,000 community projects engaging over 50,000 students by the end of the year. Go to their contact page to request a training near you.

What are the specifics?


  • develop geographic questions
  • start with questions such as: “what bugs me?” “what bothers me?” “what am I passionate about?”


  • acquire geographic information and data
  • geotagged photos, elevations, maps, animated maps, census data, changes in population
  • train kids to collect geo data in the field / get them out of the classroom

The focus should be on data that answers our questions but that also helps with the Act phase of a Geo-Inquiry


  • organize and analyze geographic information
  • this is where we and our kids live – memes, instagram, infographics

Nat Geo has always made maps and organized geo data. They’re a great place to go for ideas. The presenters talked about “finding the balance between info, design, and art” and used an artist named Fernando Baptiste as a great example.


  • develop geo-inquiry stories
  • stir emotion, build understanding
  • use what, so what, now what


  • all of this should lead to some sort of action. not a powerpoint or oral presentation but something larger that makes change at local, state, national, or international levels
  • this is civic engagement
  • share geographic stories
  • create a sense of urgency and engagement

So what can this look like? Jim Bentley from the Buck Institute shared some of the things his kids have done. His article 4 Ways to Think Outside the Rectangle with National Geographic Geo-Inquiry is a nice overview of the process. He also shared about his students tracking down information to fight obesity and unhealthy behavior. Another project focused on plastic trash in the ocean and ways to help solve that problem.

Part of their work involved using their research to create a website called Skip the Bag that documents their work as well as provide suggestions for change.

As we move into a more inquiry-based instructional and learning model focused on problem solving and action, tools like the Geo-Inquiries should be part of your toolkit. (And while you’re poking around the Geo-Inquiry site, you might as well take a few minutes to explore the rest of the NatGeo educator resources page.)


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