Penn State’s Roger Downs to receive AAG 2017 Presidential Achievement Award

Angela Rogers
March 13, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Roger M. Downs, the Ruby S. and E. Willard Miller Professor of Geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, has been selected to receive the American Association of Geographers (AAG) 2017 Presidential Achievement Award.

"Roger is a visionary for the discipline of geography. During his tenure as department head, the department grew to its current faculty size, and a number of current trademark programs — GeoVISTA, Gould Center — were established,” William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, said. “He has made numerous fundamental contributions to the field of geographic education and has chaired the Geographical Sciences Committee of the National Research Council of the National Academies. I am proud to have a scholar of his caliber in the college."

Downs will be the Department of Geography Coffee Hour speaker on Friday, March 17. His talk is titled "Incidental Learning about Geography: Saint-Exupéry and the Little Prince." 

The Presidential Achievement Award was established by the AAG Council, AAG’s governing body, to recognize individuals who have made long-standing and distinguished contributions to the discipline of geography. Up to two individuals may be recognized each year. Wilbur Zelinsky, Penn State professor emeritus of geography who died in 2013, was recognized with the award in 2006. Past AAG President Sarah Witham Bednarz will confer the award during the close of her past president’s address at the AAG annual meeting in Boston in April.

“Downs is a scholar, excellent administrator and guiding light for geographers interested in teaching and learning,” Bednarz said. “His greatest contribution to the discipline, however, has been through his leadership and deft administrative skills which facilitated a renaissance in geography education.”

Advocating for geography education

Since the mid-1980s Downs has been investigating how children develop spatial cognition.

“There are significant individual differences in how and how well people think about space. The capacity to think about space develops over time from birth onward. From an educational perspective, it is important to understand that process. And, it's simply a fascinating question,” Downs said.

Working in the Bellefonte School District with co-investigator Lynn Liben, distinguished professor of psychology and McCourtney Professor of Child Studies, on a research project funded by the former U.S. National Institute of Education led to a report, “Children's Production and Comprehension of Maps.” That report caught the attention of the Children’s Television Network and brought an invitation for Downs and Liben to design a geography curriculum for “Sesame Street.”

Downs said that experience made him realize two things: “First, that people were interested in geography, and second, that there is a continuity to the process of education” he said. “At the college level, we are near the end of a long-running process. Given that geography is almost entirely a discovery major, understanding what children do and do not learn about geography in kindergarten and elementary school is important.”

Those realizations led Downs to work with various federal, state and local education agencies to promote geography education for the next 30 years in one form or another. This work included such things as:

  • Serving as a member of the planning committee for the 1994 National Assessment Governing Board’s Geography Consensus.
  • Serving as the writing coordinator for the team that developed the “Geography for Life: National Geography Standards” in 1994 and chairing the group that revised the standards in 2012.
  • Serving as chair of the Geography Education National Implementation Project (GENIP) from 1993 to 2012. 
  • Working with states such as New York and California and local school districts in Pennsylvania and Florida on the development of geography standards.

Trailblazing online geospatial education

During his time as the head of the department, he played a significant role in developing the online geospatial education programs now offered through the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute and Penn State World Campus.

“David DiBiase [now at Esri,] and I worked together on developing the program. He did the important intellectual and design side, and I did the administrative and budget side,” Downs said. “Online education was a new approach for Penn State, although the University had a longstanding and very successful distance education program. Ours was one of the first few of these new courses, and so everything on the administrative side was developed at the same time that we were developing the course itself.”

In this case, everything meant “the platform, the accreditation, the enrollment and registration procedures, the funding model, etc. Some of the decisions were critical to the success, none more so than the idea of instructor-led instruction.”

“This contact with a person has been critical to the success. I also realized that online students wanted to 'belong' to the department and the University. As a department, we have reached a point where we have both a residential and online program at the undergraduate and graduate level. Both are of the highest quality and that has, I believe, strengthened the department.”

Building a strong geography department

Strengthening the department is also the theme of another key aspect of Down’s tenure. There are many critical decisions in managing a department. Faculty hiring is one of the most important, he said.

“I was the first in what turned out to be a new cohort of hires in human geography,” said Lorraine Dowler, associate professor of geography and women’s studies. “I always appreciated how Roger facilitated hires in new areas of research for the department.  He could have steered the hiring into his area of specialization but instead he allowed a younger generation of scholars to build the department they envisioned for their futures.  He was also a head who appreciated pre-tenure faculty speaking up in meetings, and I know from many of my friends in other departments that is not always the case.”

“Departments have cultures and maintaining that culture is vital to long-term success,” Downs said. “People have to want to be here, want to stay, and want to help build the program. Getting the right person is essential, and so I always found the negotiations with the candidate to be an important responsibility. As to strategy, it is simple: find good people, hire them, give them the tools and support that they need, and then help them to be successful.”

“My academic career, without exaggeration, is what it is today because of Roger Downs,” said Alex Klippel, associate professor and associate department head of geography. “Back in 1992, I started studying applied physical geography. However, in my second semester I read Roger's book, “Maps in Mind,” and devoted my studies almost exclusively to spatial cognition afterwards. I even joined a cognitive science Ph.D. program that focused on spatial cognition as the only geographer. Needless to say, it was surreal to get an offer for a tenure-track position from Penn State and to negotiate my terms with Roger, department head at the time. Roger has been the most profound inspiration for my career and he truly deserves being recognized with the presidential award! Congratulations and thank you.”

Last Updated March 13, 2017