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

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Robert is the senior managing director of transportation/engineering for the city of Garland, Texas.

He is also president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, an international educational and scientific association of transportation professionals.

EARLY WORK

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Robert was interested in transportation and engineering at an early age. “I’ve always liked automobiles and bicycles and things that move,” he says. “I guess even from an early age I was interested in that kind of thing. But I must say that I guess I got into civil engineering to begin with because I was interested in how cities grow and being a part of that.”

In high school, Robert realized he excelled in math and science classes. “Engineering is really the practical application of math and science,” he says. “So the fact that I was strong in math and science and I wanted to have some sort of practical application of that strength really leads you to engineering in general.

“The reason that I got interested in transportation in particular was I had an excellent professor for my introductory class in transportation engineering at the University of Tennessee,” he says. “What intrigued me about it was the fact that this aspect of engineering was really about people. It was about how people behave and how you accommodate that. And how you study that.”

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“The most exciting part of my work is finding solutions to everyday problems that people in our community have with getting around—whether it’s by vehicle, or it’s on foot, or on bicycle.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“There are some things that are just beyond the resources that you have available,” Robert says. “There are some transportation issues that just don’t have a good answer, because solving one person’s problem creates a problem for someone else. The demanding part is really trying to use the resources that we have to do the best we can for the most people.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“I guess geography for me is the physical configuration of the little piece of earth that I have to work in,” Robert says. “I mean, it’s not just that. For my job, it’s how do the creeks and the built environment and what came before me play into what we have to work with? Because we don’t have a blank sheet of paper to work with. We have the natural and built environment that we are trying to help people move about in.”

GEO-CONNECTION

Robert says geographic tools are essential to his job. “We’re map people,” he says. “We use maps extensively and layouts to help us figure out what is possible and what isn’t every day.”

Robert says geographic information system (GIS) technology is very important to his work. “I refer to it constantly in terms of determining what the conditions are at a location where we are trying to achieve something, whether it’s solving a problem or planning a road or figuring out if we have enough room to add another lane within what we already have,” he says.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENGINEER

“I think you have to have a pretty good foundation in math and science, but it’s not to the neglect of the other disciplines, particularly English and some of the social studies aspects and civics aspects of education,” Robert says. “In other words, you just can’t be good at math and science and do this job, because it involves interacting with people and communicating with them and understanding how they behave.”

In addition, Robert suggests joining the debate team. “I would have to say that gaining that public speaking confidence and understanding how to logically lay out an argument and have a discussion about it in a civil way was a real key aspect to my success.”

GET INVOLVED

Robert suggests getting involved with your community to understand how decisions are made in your area. “If you care about the place that you live and the community you are in,” he says, “I think it probably makes you a better engineer.”

TRANSPORTING COMMUNITY IDEAS

Robert believes there’s a real way to make the world a better place by working in transportation engineering.

“You might be able to make a difference in making your community safer, and that’s something we work on every day,” he says. “You might be concerned about how is the environment affected and to help make transportation projects affect the environment less. Or doing things in a way that really promotes environmental sustainability. And finally, from a social standpoint, people need to move around to have jobs, to have recreational opportunities and cultural opportunities.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

aspect

Noun

view or interpretation.

built environment

Noun

man-made or constructed parts of a landscape or area.

civics

Noun

study of the rights and responsibilities of citizens of a nation, state, or other form of government.

civil engineer

Noun

person who works in the design and construction of buildings, roads, and other public facilities.

creek

Noun

flowing body of water that is smaller than a river.

engineer

Noun

person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

engineering

Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

essential

Adjective

needed.

foundation

Noun

structure on which a building is constructed.

geographic information system (GIS)

Noun

any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)

map

Noun

symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

Encyclopedic Entry: map

professor

Noun

highest-ranking teacher at a college or university.

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

sustainability

Noun

use of resources in such a manner that they will never be exhausted.

transportation

Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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