CAREER: Children's Concepts of Urban Space and the Development of Urban Geographic Learning in Low-Income School Districts
Meghan Cope Principal Investigator
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How do children conceptualize urban space? And how can our understanding of this promote better ways of teaching geographic concepts in the lower grades? These two questions serve as the primary objectives for this study. In addressing the first question, the study will show the ways in which children conceptualize space as socially constructed through human actions, flows and movement, social relationships, and physical processes. The project will also demonstrate the ways that children play active roles in shaping social space, constructing meaningful places, and representing spatial relationships through various age-appropriate media. The research will engage third-grade classrooms from two urban neighborhood schools in Buffalo, New York to help identify and theorize a "children's urban geography". The study adopts the view that children are active, knowing, and purposeful agents through and upon space who -- like the rest of society -- are constrained by factors of their age, race/ethnicity, class, and gender. In the two schools chosen for this study over 90% of the children are living in poverty. Additionally, the children come from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds: one school is overwhelmingly African-American and the other serves a mixed neighborhood of Hispanics, whites, and Native Americans. A service-learning course will be taught by the Principal Investigator at the University at Buffalo that will enable Geography and Education students to participate in much of the research while simultaneously themselves learning about inner-city schools, geographic concepts, teaching strategies, and research processes. Research methods will include participant observation, informal interviews with children, and analysis of children's artwork, games, and stories to learn more about how children understand and represent social and physical urban space. At the same time, the development of curriculum materials appropriate for teaching geographic concepts will be developed by the Principal Investigator in concert with the University students, and tested in the third-grade classrooms. Emphasis in both the research and the development of curriculum materials is on using both traditional materials (paper, paint, glue) and multi-media such as videography, web site development, computer map-making, communication with distant classrooms, and display of creative projects by the children (art, maps, stories, and others) on each class's web site.<br/><br/>The significance of this study lies in several areas. First, the theoretical gap in the geography on children's understandings of space will be filled. Further, the discipline may one day benefit from greater ethnic/racial diversity if some of these young children choose to continue with their geographic education at higher levels and become practitioners in one way or another. Second, the project will be a bridge between the University and the local community and will foster greater exchange of ideas between impoverished schools and resource-rich educational establishments. Third, the project will expose Geography students to the possibilities of elementary education as a career option and will expose Education students to the wealth of geographic concepts that can form an important part of education in the lower grades. Further, these students will gain experience in racially diverse, low-income schools, participate in research for both theoretical and practical purposes, and experience the rewards of interacting with young children as part of community service. Fourth, the participating schools and classroom teachers will receive the use of computers, software, and other equipment that otherwise would be unobtainable, as well as teacher training in high technology, digital media, and geographic software. The teachers will also have new curriculum materials to use for the New York State-mandated third-grade focus on "communities". And finally, the children who participate in the project will benefit from availability of high-quality computers in their classrooms and structured use of the Internet, from engagement with University students who can serve as role models, and from the heightened self-esteem that comes from being recognized as important and valuable members of the research project.