National Geographic Society Grant Awarded to ACPS Will Put Charlottesville at the Center of Understanding How to Use Geography to Solve Modern Challenges

In recent times, the Charlottesville area has been at the center of national conversations around race relations, historic monuments, and the evolution of a city confronting dynamic change. Now it could be at the epicenter of a new approach to understanding how to solve the life challenges posed by these issues.

The National Geographic Society has awarded a grant of nearly $50,000 to a team of Albemarle County Public Schools educators who will be working with students on a research project to, in the words of one grant reviewer, “use Charlottesville as a case study of how people can resignify place.”

Project Leader Chris Bunin, who teaches geography at Albemarle High School, said his team will design and develop a curriculum using field experiences and geographic inquiry, matched with geospatial intelligence. “Our goal is to deepen the community’s understanding of its history by uncovering the multiple perspectives of residents over a long period of time,” he said. “Students,” he noted, “can easily identify where sites are located. Our goal is to answer such questions as when, why then, why there, and why care.”

Among the specific focus areas, Bunin said, will be to answer contemporary questions from the study of the past—questions around the legacy of slavery, community commemorations, the management of resources, and even the impact of gentrification on affordable housing stock.

In its grant review, the Society said the project’s connection between social studies and geography has the potential for broader reach and replication in other parts of the country. Bunin said the use of geospatial technologies in field research is one example of a resource that will be nationally shared.

Students will be visiting sites to reconsider their understandings of local geography and to create story maps, data dashboards, and interactive community tours using augmented reality. They will gain insight into how race, ethnicity, language, gender, age, religion, social class, and economic status shape community views, experiences and actions.

Among the sites that will be analyzed are Charlottesville’s downtown, the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Shenandoah National Park.

Dr. Rachel Burstein, an education researcher who has studied civic innovation in local government, said that one problem in teaching history is that “students typically approach primary sources with a ready narrative supplied by textbooks, lectures, and the popular media.” The problem, she says, is that students are told what is true rather than finding truth on their own.

“That is the central point of this grant,” Bunin says. “The traditional approach of telling students how and what to think can lead to many viewpoints and voices being marginalized. Our goal here is to enable students to use their field experiences to find truth on their own and to uncover those viewpoints and voices,” he emphasized.

Teachers and students from two high schools, Albemarle and Monticello, and the division’s charter middle school will collaborate on the project. Joining Bunin as faculty advisors are Mae Craddock, a library media specialist from the charter school; Adam Seipel, a learning technology integrator from Albemarle; John Skelton, who teaches human geography at Monticello; and Julie Stavitski, the charter middle school’s lead teacher.

“I’m enthusiastic about how this work will help students better understand how lives can be improved by using data collection and analysis to solve problems,” Skelton said. “Students should not just be passengers but active participants in their communities,” he added.

One important asset, Seipel said, is the awareness the project will create among students about “the interconnection of decisions made hundreds of years ago that shaped the state of communities today. The generation of students in our schools now have an opportunity to be catalysts for change locally and globally in ways that no previous generation has.”

That’s because, Stavitski says, “Many students haven’t been exposed to the power of geography in an interdisciplinary, connected manner. They may know the importance of certain places in our town in isolation, but don’t necessarily see how the people, systems and decisions around those areas directly impact the value an individual or group places on an area.”

The impact of this knowledge, Craddock says, “empowers students to not just think about cultural geography in the abstract. It can open the door to truth-telling and a deep understanding of changes that will improve the social fabric and economic structure of a community.”

During each year of the grant period, Bunin said, students will be able to use geospatial technologies and the geographic inquiry model to analyze and story map multiple perspectives of the same location, produce video and oral histories of community assets, and use online technologies to create an interactive story map that informs students and community members about the multicultural geography of Charlottesville and Central Virginia, and it can be used to improve the quality of life.

Students also will participate in two public “Revisiting Charlottesville” showcase events to present their findings, and they will design and create a website that archives and presents artifacts unearthed by the project.


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