Indiana State University Newsroom

Geography students take learning outdoors

August 17, 2009

Indiana State University geography students spent part of their summer measuring and mapping alongside Kennesaw State University students in north central West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.

"Field experiences allow students to do geography and not just read about it," said Jay Gatrell, dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies and associate professor of geography. "Students truly get excited about using the technology in the real world and are made aware of the fuller range of applications that exist beyond their personal interests."

Nancy Hoalst-Pullen, assistant professor of geography and geographic information systems director at Kennesaw State, agreed about the importance of field experience for geography students.

"Regardless of the concentration, geography can, and I argue should be, taught outside the classroom," she said. "With Jay's background in human geography, and my own background in physical geography, students benefit from our collective knowledge and learn more."

Students surveyed and collected data regarding physical and human landscapes. They used soil and water test kits, global positioning systems as well as took walking tours of Appalachian communities and coal camps to learn about cultural landscapes and settlement patterns. ISU and KSU students formed groups to research projects ranging from "Geology of West Virginia," "Red Maple Regeneration and Oak Decline" and "Hydrology of a Reach Along Decker's Creek" to "Demographics, Politics and Bumper Stickers," "Neighborhood Architecture of Morgantown, W.Va." and "Coal Camps and the Human Landscape."

Andrew Stawarski, an ISU human geography student from O'Fallon, Ill., said he enjoyed working with the students from Kennesaw State University.

"Personally, I like to see what I am researching," he said. "Usually, I'm not in the field; I'm reading about it in books and in secondary accounts. Primary data collection is the most perfected and the most accurate."

Through the field experience, Stawarski said he learned new techniques such as using a grid system to systematically identify and measure tree species as well as stream bed mapping.

"We measured a segment of a given stream and mapped the stream's elevation," he said. "With this data and that of the stream's velocity, which we also measured, we can then make estimates to stream flow and data alike."

The class also proved to be a reunion of sorts; Hoalst-Pullen earned her master's degree from ISU and Gatrell served on her thesis committee.

"As a faculty member in geography, I'm always pleased to see our graduates succeed," Gatrell said. "Needless to say, I was excited about the opportunity to team teach the course with her and to meet her students."

Hoalst-Pullen said ISU was an important stepping stone in her pursuit of teaching at the university level.

"In part, ISU and its professors framed my understanding of what geography is - that is to say, how one identifies, examines, interprets and understands aspects of the world through a spatial lens," she said.

She also attributed her professors at ISU with showing her how geography can be applied through coursework done outside the physical classroom.

"It was through my thesis work on urban forest dynamics - the changing composition and structure of forest tree species located within increasingly urbanized environments - in which I personally found that learning could be best accomplished by doing," she said.

Now, one of her goals is to pass along her knowledge through field coursework, when possible. In doing so with classes combined from the two universities, she is impacting students at ISU.

"It was nice to see how far her ISU education brought her," said Stawarski, who called Hoalst-Pullen "a key piece to the trip."

Gatrell and Hoalst-Pullen called the combined class a success and hope to have it again in the future.

"ISU students taking the course were predominately graduate students trained in human geography, while those at KSU were undergraduates more knowledgeable in physical geography and GIS," she said. "As a result, students learned from each other, and in terms of KSU students, interest in ISU as a place for future studies became evident. Overall, both ISU and KSU students learned not only field methods but actively participated in peer-to-peer teaching and learning."

"The combined course was a nice match for ISU and KSU students," Gatrell said. "Their experiences and expertise complemented one another and the students learned about the importance of building teams with new unfamiliar people and these people skills will serve them well in the workplace or graduate school."

Contact: Jay Gatrell, Indiana State University, dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies and associate professor of geography, at 812-237-3005 or

Nancy Hoalst-Pullen: Kennesaw State University, assistant professor of geography and geographic information systems director, at 678-797-2391 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or


Cutline: Jay Gatrell (right), Indiana State University dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies and associate professor of geography, discuss a project with Andrew Stawarski , an Indiana State geography graduate student, and students from Kennesaw State University. Courtesy photo


Cutline: Nancy Hoalst-Pullen, Kennesaw State University assistant professor of geography, lectures to students about physical geography on top of Cooper's Rock in West Virginia. Courtesy photo