We all need to look up from our phones long enough to see the real world – not just to keep from running into something, but to truly look at everything that surrounds us. We would better appreciate what a marvel the planet is and how we can change it, negatively and positively. Penn State Geography Professor Peirce Lewis was as influential as anyone in helping me see those details, both natural and man-made. While his passing two weeks ago saddened me, my memories of his classes, lectures and writings also inspired me.
After more than three decades of talking about writing a book about my own travels and observations of the natural world, I finally completed the task and found a publisher last year. Though I have not talked to Dr. Lewis since college graduation in 1978, his fingerprints are all over the book. Geography, in part, studies the interaction between man and the nature. I'm not sure there was anyone who told that story better than Lewis. Geography is also the place where social and physical sciences converge and he seemed equally comfortable on either side of the discipline.
His geomorphology course – the study of landforms and how they came to be – was more than a class about mountains and valleys. His comprehensive view of the world meant the class explained the many connections between the rocks, soils and waterways and the way man would use or be impacted by them. When I think back, I'm not quite sure how he squeezed it all into a ten week trimester. I still have the notes, the textbook and the poster-sized map he used by famed cartographer Erwin Raisz. I referred to all three when I was writing my own book and I still take the landform map with me traveling.
Just as comfortable with the cultural side of geography, Lewis also taught about man-made American landscapes in a class called the American Scene. Another of his disciples, Wayne Brew, was particularly fascinated by that side of Lewis. Now an assistant professor of Geography at Montgomery County Community College, Brew recently reminisced about his old teacher. "He provided a great epiphany for me; the cultural landscape can be 'read' like the physical landscape," Brew reflected via e-mail. "Now the ordinary is interesting and extraordinary."
Lewis won numerous teaching awards during his long career at Penn State, Brew describing him as "an extraordinary teacher." He had an exceptional ability to connect the seemingly disconnected and make the complex understandable. "His writings are not filled with jargon or pretense," Brew noted. Many also seem to remember Lewis's humor and unbridled enthusiasm, both in the classroom and in the field. This would sometimes have some drawbacks, though. Brew recalled a field trip for the landform course in the very early eighties and Dr. Lewis was driving one of the vans.
"Dr. Lewis's way of seeing things sometimes meant almost hitting them or crossing into the opposite lane while pointing out other things of interest. That included rock outcrops, landforms, fences, building materials, barns, houses…As this trip progressed only a few of us were still in Dr. Lewis's van." Fearing for their safety, the rest of the students had migrated to the other van driven by a graduate assistant.
It should not be surprising that his impact on central Pennsylvania went beyond the classroom. His historic perspective helped him see the value of planning in the initial development of Pennsylvania's oldest cities, and he believed smarter urban planning was a key to vibrant cities today. Recognizing the scenic squalor which was contributing to urban decay in the United States, he helped write the early sign regulations in State College in an effort to tame sign and billboard blight. Peirce Lewis passionately preached his Geography gospel at Penn State for nearly four decades and there's little doubt the messages he imparted will live in many of us for just as long.
John Frederick, a 1978 honors graduate of Penn State's Geography program encourages readers to watch Lewis's Pennsylvania Journey, PBS's 1983 documentary on Pennsylvania's historical geography and landscapes.
Too often we underestimate the impact and worth of our teachers and mentors. Similarly, we do not always realize the great things being done or the lessons being learned by those we mentor. I recently learned that two of my Penn State Geography professors, Fred Wernstedt and Wilbur Zelinsky, passed away within a few weeks of each other last summer after impressive academic careers and long retirements. It reminded me of the many worthwhile lessons passed onto me during my college days.
Wernstedt was my undergraduate advisor during my time at University Park and taught me climatology. As an advisor, he always challenged those in his care to think about how their education would prepare them for their professional careers. Despite a demanding teaching and research load, he always had time to talk with us. I loved his climatology course and sincerely could not wait to get to class. I can still recall his lesson on California's incredibly diverse climate. He presented us with pages of data, telling us to compute each city's climate category and then plot them on a state map. California has nearly every climate found on the planet and the map was, at first, a confusing mess.
Then Fred started to explain why things were the way they were, how the mountains impacted temperature and how the subtropical high made for the extremely dry climates in Southern California. He helped bring together a hundred things I had learned in my other Geography classes. All the sudden, the complicated map started to show patterns that I had not seen. Zelinsky was very different from Wernstedt, more aloof than his colleague but still an impassioned teacher. He was a cultural geographer and had done research on a variety of rather unique things, including the geography of both cemeteries and religious affiliation.
His "Historical Geography of North America" class became the place that History, Geography and Sociology all came together. His semester project was a fascinating map analysis in which we were to compare and contrast two places at two different points in time. (Penn State's incredible topographic map library had maps going back to the nineteenth century so it was possible to see changes over a very long period!) I looked at one place I had bicycled through – Big Meadow, VA – and another town I planned to visit on my bike – Harlem, MT. Like Wernstedt, Zelinsky taught us to see things in ways we had not seen them before. Several other Geography professors shared that gift.
Three dozen years after my undergraduate years, I am preparing to say goodbye to two exceptional Penn State Altoona Environmental Studies interns, Janelle Thayer and Josh Clark. They remind me that not only the student, but the mentor too, can feel rewarded by their experience. Somewhere in the great beyond, Fred Wernstedt is smiling, satisfied that his student learned the most important lesson of all.
Pennsylvania students struggle with science. A recent report from the Department of Education confirmed the bad news. Like much of the rest of the state, Blair County's schools showed sub-par science performance. All seven school districts scored below the 70 point level that was considered proficient. Six of them scored in the fifties.
I became frustrated a decade ago when Earth Science, in particular, was deemphasized in many central Pennsylvania schools. Hoping to raise awareness of the importance of Earth Science, I set out to show that our high school students were falling short on their understanding of the planet and their environment. Ultimately, I hoped that schools might bring Earth Science back to their ninth grade class curricula.
Though time constraints did not allow me to survey a large number, I did manage to test about one hundred high school students. My one hundred question test asked the sorts of questions that I typically asked in the Earth Science classes I taught during my teaching career two decades ago. Some of the questions were admittedly challenging but many were the sorts of things that any citizen should understand. The results should cause us to take pause.
Understanding and recognizing our environmental problems are the keys to solving them. Last time we looked at some of the basic scientific and environmental topics that our younger folks do not understand. Realizing that many adults are also unaware of these things, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the future. Yet, there is some good news amidst the doom and gloom. Though scientific literacy is not increasing as educators believe it needs to, it has been slowing improving among both students and adults. For this and other reasons, increased environmental literacy does not have to be an insurmountable challenge. Here's how we might turn the tide.