Wednesday, February 14, 2001 Volume 66, Issue 96



Students demand geography degree

By Ken Fountain
Senior Staff Writer

A group of students plan to submit a petition to the UH System Board of Regents Thursday to seek the re-establishment of a geography major program.

If approved by the Texas Legislature, it would mark the first time in more than two decades that the discipline, which has undergone "tremendous growth" in recent years, would be given degree-level status here.

Between 500 and 600 students signed a petition backing the proposal, said sophomore University Studies major Bill Funderburke.

He and a few other "wannabe geography majors," as he puts it, will present their case to the board members along with Jeffrey Meyerson, head of Geographic Information Systems at Reliant Energy, and Richard Boehm, head of the geography program at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

Meyerson will make the case for the growing demand for geographers in business and government. That demand is sparked by the growing use of GIS, a computer program that uses satellite images to display geographic details along with a wide range of other data, Funderburke said.

Over the last few years, it has been used in more and more fields, including the petrochemical field, real estate and urban planning, he said.

"Businesses are saying that we have all this data, but we need geographers to interpret it for us," he said.

UH already offers 35 hours of geography courses. The major program was discontinued in 1979, and the minor degree was phased out in 1993.

"There's never been an adequate explanation as to why (it was phased out)," said Michael Doran, a senior research fellow at UH's Center for the Americas who has been teaching geography courses at UH for five years. "It seems to have been just a matter of a switch being turned off."

"It's a very good applied discipline," he said. "It allows you to learn why things are where they are."

Doran said that geography began to lose favor in the late 1970s and 1980s because maps, its principal product, were so labor-intensive to create. But now, using GIS, "computers can spit out maps in an instant."

"Right now, you can walk out of school with a geography degree and land a job," he said.

Doran has led students to the small island nation of Grenada, off the coast of Venezuela, to conduct summer classes for the last two years. He said that five of the six students who went on the trip two years ago have already written papers that will appear shortly in peer-reviewed journals.

"For undergraduate students, that's a degree of excellence that is unheard of," he said. "It indicates the need to build up an energetic program that already exists."

Currently, only Doran and Victor Moat teach geography courses at UH. Doran said that creating a full degree program would require the addition of two or three instructors.

"When you compare the cost of that to the huge increase in funds the University is seeking for Tier One status, it's ridiculously small," Doran said.

All other major universities in Texas, including Texas A&M and the University of Texas, have a full-fledged geography program, he said. At Southwest Texas State, there are "hundreds and hundreds" of geography students, including 35 to 40 doctorate candidates.

He said the proposal has met only "passive resistance" from the administration.

"They've basically just been ignoring it," he said.

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