The Human Element (GAConf18 Review Pt.2)

Part 1 of my Geography Association conference review focused on the two opening keynote lectures on “Guerrilla Geography” and the fact we are all geographers. Here in Part 2, I’ll be summarising:

  • How the Environment Agency uses mapping and modelling to manage flood risk
  • The current situation in the Arctic and how it can be used for place-based teaching
  • The ever amazing TeachMeet

Before I do so; here are a few ‘honourable mentions’ from Conference Friday:

(Not a very good picture, apologies.) Katie Hall and Jason Sawle from Esri showed us practical uses from ArcGIS. Esri have made ArcGIS free for schools; it is a very powerful application and worth tinkering with. Also check out ‘Survey123’ which allows you to collect geo-located survey data which can then be plotted on an ArcGIS map. Katie and Jason are two very ‘good eggs’ and  are very good in supporting schools; Jason has helped me and fellow Norfolk Geography teachers via Skype with the workings of ArcGIS.
Mark Williams, Professor of Geography, Geology and Environment from the University of Leicester gave a very interesting talk, providing evidence for the human race being agents of geological change. Many examples were provided, from plastics to underground structures, showing that we may have now indeed entered a new epoch of the ‘Anthropocene‘.
A round from the quiz in the evening was to make a landscape or landmark using liquorice allsorts. From my own experience, I’ve definitely found that using food and treats as a teaching tool is a good motivator! Can you tell what this group is making?

Geography saves lives in the real world

Session: Lecture 6: “Real-world geography: mapping, modelling and managing risk” Catherine Wright, Director, FCRM Digital & Skills, Environment Agency.

The Environment Agency (a branch of the UK government) is an organisation which pops up time and time again if you teach Geography in the UK; they almost always have some presence at each conference. Mostly, it is their work on flooding on both rivers and coasts which is used in the classroom. Resources already exist for teachers to use, such as this one about flooding and flood risk maps, but Alan Kinder, who introduced speaker Catherine Wright made us aware that the Environment Agency are working in partnership with the GA on a new set of resources. So, keep an ear and eye out!

A common way of looking at hazards is to classify them by likelihood and severity. I’ve often come across both GCSE and A-Level exam questions where understanding of such classification is very useful. To the government, they perform the same exercise; Catherine showed us this matrix:

Taken from the UK government’s 2017 ‘National Risk Register’ report. The matrix shows a number of risks, from low (1) to high (5) severity and very unlikely (1) to very likely (5) probability of occurring withing the next five years.

As you can see from the matrix, according to the government, all kinds of flooding appear as being both likely with potentially severe impacts within the next five years. Risks which appear towards the upper-right of the matrix will no doubt be given intense focus for preparation of an incident, and resources towards mitigation. The report also acknowledges the role of climate change for these risks. Flooding is expected to become a greater concern that it already is. All this means the Environment Agency play a important role in managing and mitigating flood risk, and are allocated a large amount of resources to do so.

Mapping and modelling “underpins everything the Environment Agency does in terms of flood risk” states Catherine Wright. This fact is in perfect tandem with the skills and knowledge that students need to learn when studying Geography at any level, so using the EA’s flood maps is an obvious fit.

To generate products like the flood maps, the Environment Agency collect a lot of spatial and temporal data, for instance:

  • Hydrological data – including water flows in a drainage system and how the river responds to periods of high inputs (like precipitation);
  • Topography and relief – while in the past this was done by theodolite, recently there has been greater use of LIDAR;
  • Climate modelling, to simulate possible changes to the way a river system and drainage basin will react to new patterns of precipitation.
A new piece of tech, the ARC-boat, developed by HR Wallingford, allows the Environment Agency to collect more accurate hydrological data from rivers both during normal flow and periods of flood.

However, despite all these which help the Environment Agency’s efforts, Catherine stated that public awareness of flood risk is pretty poor.

A small study revealed that more people have a zombie apocalypse plan than a flood plan!

In a recent attempt to address this, the government have simplified access for the public to find out not just if they are at risk of flooding now, but whether they will be in the long-term. I think this can be an exceptionally useful teaching tool, especially for use in enquiry-based learning or a secondary source for fieldwork/NEA. Also, there is new language now being used. Clearly the Environment Agency are taking flooding and the increased flood risk due to climate change very seriously. Rather than the risk stages being announced to the public as “warning”, or “alert” etc, it is now: “Prepare”, “Act” and “Survive”. Scary, eh?

Lessons from the Arctic

Lecture Plus 20: “The Arctic’s changing environment and its impact for the UK”, Henry Burgess, Head of the UK Arctic Office, NERC/British Antarctic Survey.

The topic of ‘cold environments’ is widespread across Geography syllabuses and key-stages. The Arctic and Antarctic are places which inspire a lot of awe and intrigue, and are on the front-lines of environmental change. Henry’s talk therefore was useful and interesting in a number of ways.

While the issue of tourism in Antarctica is probably more well studied and talked about, we now have tourism in the Arctic to content with. ‘Doomsday tourism’ is on the increase, where wealthy tourists go an visit usually remote places in the world to see environmental change and destruction for themselves. (Makes you wonder about the human race, sometimes…!)

Of course, one of the main changes in the Arctic is the decline in sea-ice. Not just extent, but age and thickness too. Henry showed us a couple of animations, but the one I thought which was most striking, and a good for practising alternative graphical visualisations was a spiral graph of declining sea-ice. This wasn’t the exact one he showed us, but it comes from a website with other useful spiral graphs.

One of the biggest barriers to dealing with the impacts of climate change and encourage people to engage in mitigating behaviour is the lack of tangibility of the causes (e.g. invisible greenhouse gas emissions). Henry gave us a fact which may jolt a few… the correlation between CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere and the loss of Arctic sea-ice is strong enough that you can work out for every ton of CO₂ put into the atmosphere, 3m² of Arctic ice will be lost. That’s about a trip, by air, between London and New York. Now that’s a bit more tangible… If we assume that the ice melted was a meter thick, then the next time you’re off to the Big Apple, that’s around 2.5 bath tubs of Arctic ice gone (and that’s probably a conservative estimate!).

If you want to bring geopolitics into the mix, the Arctic again provides you with some good fodder. Each country around the Arctic, such as Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway have made claims, especially those parts of the region that extend out from their continental shelf towards the North Pole. However, Henry countered claims by the media that this is all a power and resource grab. The Arctic Council, which is made up of these countries plus some observer countries (which include the UK) exists more to safeguard the Arctic.

The Danish (via Greenland) and Canadians have taken their overlapping territorial claims to the level of friendly banter on Hans Island. (Image source: The Toronto Star)

Somewhat surprisingly, the UK government have taken a very proactive step with regards to their plans for sustainability in the Arctic. The government state on the report’s website that they are committed to:

  • helping to understand a changing Arctic through world-class science
  • protecting the Arctic’s fragile environment
  • promoting prosperity in the region

For further reading and resources, Henry announced that there will soon be an update to the ‘Discovering The Arctic’ website, where there will be new teaching resources and content. So keep that page bookmarked! Finally, the full NERC report, released recently, about the changes in the Arctic covers everything you need to know in detail. Some of us do like to take a look at the long-reads, and it is definitely a useful source to scan for summaries, statements, facts and visualisations.

Also, for more resources about the Arctic and Antarctic, here’s a cheeky ping-back to an older blog entry about the polar regions.

And finally, the ‘TeachMeet’…

This is a wonderful event that is not unique to the GA conference, and happens every year on the Friday evening. The format is simple: a handful educators have just a few minutes (in this case six) to share their thoughts/experiences/tips/tricks etc, in a rapidfire random order. In the absence of our usual compère, Richard Allaway did a sterling job hosting, and broadcasted the event over Facebook live. Below is the full recording with a summary of what each presenter offered, allowing you to skip straight to something that tickles your fancy.

TeachMeet running order and short summaries:

  1. 07:55-14:15 Danny Riley (@GeogRiley): Danny gave his experiences of ‘real world geography’ through his experiences in the army, e.g. mapping to avoid dangerous areas like IED explosives, helping with flood response in Carlisle, supporting security for the London 2012 Olympics.
  2. 14:50-21:15 Jen Monk (@Jennnnnn_x): Jen gave 6 teaching strategies in 6 minutes. Worth mentioning is that Jen also co-runs @GeogChat on Twitter every Wednesday at 7:30pm British time.
  3. 21:30-27:40 James Riley (@PerseGeography): Ideas for teaching place and space was James’ offering this year. Amongst other things, he showed that there is a lot of Geography associated with the 9/11 site in New York, and how to use music videos to give a sense of place.
  4.  28:15-34:30 Katie Hall (@geogologue): Katie, an educator from Esri, demostrated the most recent GIS tools and how to combine digital resources into a kind of ‘digital textbook’ e.g. Esri Story Maps. Katie makes everyone aware of the ‘Teaching Resource center’ on the website.
  5. 35:00-41:30 Paul Turner (@geography_paul): Paul flashed his school’s GoPro360 (obtained through a grant!) and showed us some examples of teaching applications. He made us aware of VeeR VR ( which could particularly be useful for fieldwork.
  6. 42:00-47:30 Catherine Owen (@GeogMum): Catherine gave us a very useful reminder why collaboration is key to ‘surviving’ the job we love. Google docs, #teamgeography on Twitter, amongst the ideas.
  7. 48:00-54:15 Kate Stockings (@geography_kes): Kate shared 8 ideas from her first 8 terms as a teacher, including an exceptionally useful plenary called ‘Speak Like A Geographer’ for on those few occasions where there is spare time at the end of lessons.
  8. 54:30-1:01:00 Richard Allaway (@richardallaway): Our host for this year’s TeachMeet gave us very useful quick-fire ideas of how to deal with the insane amount of ‘useful’ stuff that is accessible nowadays, especially online: Instapaper, Trello etc..
  9. 1:01:30-1:07:00 Myself. An exceptionally rapid overview of my sabbatical so far, and why & how Geography teachers should take one themselves… with some Dr Seuss-style lyrics. Also I made attendees aware of my GCSE syllabus blog index.
  10. 1:07:20-1:14:00 Alan Parkinson (@GeoBlogs) Alan, from Sheffield himself, pitched us the geography of ‘home’. How we can use landmarks with stories from our own hometowns. How about an autocomplete (Google) of your hometown?
  11. 1:14:20-1:18:30 Ali Murray (@nlgeography) – Last year Ali gave the ‘three D’s’ of Geography, this year it was the three ‘Cs of Geography’: Content, context, concept – forget the DfE, we are the specialists!

The creativity, talent and expertise of my colleagues never ceases to amaze me. This is why I love the TeachMeet a lot; it’s like the pick’n’mix at a sweet shop. Quickly take what you want from a wide range of ideas… delicious!

I’ll give you a few days to digest this summary. Next up: Conference Saturday… exploring patterns of human behaviour, how to give your trainee teacher the best possible leg-up, being a geography teacher adventurer and a tribute to one of the brightest and bubbliest ‘cogs-in-the-wheel’ you’d ever meet (who is swapping the GA for many many many cups of coffee!). Stay tuned!

zzlogoP.S. My sabbatical is self-funded and un-paid. Please check out my paid resources at TES and  Teachers-Pay-Teachers! If you are looking for teaching resources for all subjects, not just Geography, please check out ZigZag education’s catalogue by clicking through my affiliate link here. If you do find something useful and purchase, I’ll get some commission to help me pay for a public transport fare etc! 😉 I also have free resources on my portfolio page, and an index of blog entries linked to UK GCSE Geography syllabus topics.


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