Article

Real-World Geography: How people use geography and the geographic perspective in their everyday lives and real-world careers.

Illustration by Mary Crooks

By Stuart Thornton

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dave is the executive director of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, a nonprofit organization located on 500 acres of land near Spicer, Minnesota. Prairie Woods offers a wide variety of outdoor programs, from historic canoeing trips to snowshoe tracking to days on the shooting range.

Dave is responsible for the overall program and operations of Prairie Woods.

EARLY WORK

Dave grew up on a small farm in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota. He frequently explored the rural region with his two brothers.

“We’d have great adventures going across the field over to Elkhorn Lake, which is all built up now but at that time was just wild land and forest,” Dave says.

While pursuing a degree in social science at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Dave realized that he wanted to incorporate his love of nature into his career.

“When I was in college, I really knew that I was interested in working with people, and I was interested in the outdoors,” he says. “I really became more and more interested in the effect that wilderness and outdoor experiences have on people and the character development aspect that could happen.”

After college, Dave worked in outdoor programs in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, at Black Sturgeon Lake in Ontario, Canada, and in Anchorage, Alaska.

“What I got into out of school was working with what are called adventure-based treatment programs and Outward Bound Adaptive Programs, and I did that for a number of years in some really interesting and beautiful places,” he says.

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“What is most exciting is when you see kids or adults involved in the programs, and they are really lit up. That’s why we are doing what we are doing ultimately. We are trying to make kids make that connection with enjoying the outdoors and feeling some responsibility for environmental stewardship.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“The stressful part of the job is being the person who is ultimately responsible for the care and feeding of the organization and making sure that we are delivering safe, high-quality programs that can only be done with a lot of really good people doing their job.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“Trying to reach an understanding of how the place affects people and how people affect place. Also, what are the factors and the variables that come into play in creating a place and a sense of place.”

GEO-CONNECTION

Dave says the purpose of Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is to learn about the geography of the region.

“I think what we do is all about understanding how are we connected to self, others, and the environment,” he says. “And how are we connected to this place? And what is our responsibility to the place? And what are the limitations of the place?”

Dave notes that weather and climate are often limitations for the local community. “It takes a lot of energy to live in Minnesota,” Dave says. “So how do you do that in a responsible way?”

Prairie Woods offers a variety of activities for visitors, from archery to snowshoe tracking. One program, “Geo-Geo-Geo Caching,” gets participants to explore different geographic features on the facility’s 500 acres, from forest to prairie to wetlands. Geocaching is a game where players use GPS coordinates to find hidden "treasures."

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . EXECUTIVE AT AN ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATION

“It’s really important to try to cultivate your personal relationship tools and your ability to communicate.”

GET INVOLVED

Dave suggests individuals do some backcountry travel, and for young people to look into working for the Youth Conservation Corps.

“It’s a way to learn about the environment but also to learn about working with other people to complete projects,” he says, “how to be successful with communication, cooperation, creative problem solving.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

archery

Noun

art and science of using bows and arrows for hunting, sport, or the military.

backcountry

adjective, noun

sparsely populated rural region.

canoe

noun, verb

small, open boat with pointed ends.

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

communicate

Verb

to exchange knowledge, thoughts, or feelings.

coordinates

Noun

a set of numbers giving the precise location of a point, often its latitude and longitude.

cultivate

Verb

to encourage the growth of something through work and attention.

energy

Noun

capacity to do work.

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

forest

Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

frequent

Adjective

often.

geocache

Noun

container used in a treasure-hunting game of hidden objects (geocaches), usually found using a GPS device.

geography

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

Encyclopedic Entry: geography

Global Positioning System (GPS)

Noun

system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

incorporate

Verb

to blend or bring together.

nonprofit organization

Noun

business that uses surplus funds to pursue its goals, not to make money.

Outward Bound

Noun

nonprofit organization whose mission is "To inspire character development and self-discovery in people of all ages and walks of life through challenge and adventure, and to impel them to achieve more than they ever thought possible, to show compassion for others and to actively engage in creating a better world."

prairie

Noun

large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

Encyclopedic Entry: prairie

region

Noun

any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

Encyclopedic Entry: region

rural

Adjective

having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

shooting range

Noun

site where people may safely shoot guns at targets.

snowshoe tracking

noun, verb

process of snowshoe-wearing people tracking animals in the outdoors, finding evidence through the animals' tracks or wingprints in the snow.

social science

Noun

study that focuses on people, culture, and society.

stewardship

Noun

responsible management to ensure benefits are passed on to future generations.

stress

Verb

to strain or put pressure on.

ultimate

Adjective

final or maximum.

weather

Noun

state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

Encyclopedic Entry: weather

wetland

Noun

area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

Encyclopedic Entry: wetland

wilderness

Noun

environment that has remained essentially undisturbed by human activity.

Encyclopedic Entry: wilderness

Youth Conservation Corps

Noun

summer employment program administered by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service, for men and women age 15 through 18, "who work, learn, and earn together by doing projects on public land."

Credits

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editors

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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