1. From the Department Head: Poised for success

Cindy BrewerOver the last two years, the department has been reworking our undergraduate curriculum. We begin transitioning to the new set of courses this coming year, with both trepidation and enthusiasm.

We are getting a jump on the university-level revamp of general education requirements and Penn State’s new emphasis on engaged scholarship: out-of-class experiences that complement in-class learning, such as undergraduate research, internships, study abroad, service learning and community-based learning. Our UROC program that pairs undergrads with grad thesis research work (Geog 494) is a successful aspect of research engagement for geography majors. We are also poised to offer some of the first gen eds categorized as meeting the new Integrative Studies (IS) requirement. All Penn State general education courses will be re-certified this year, and we are ready. Brent Yarnal, whose retirement is celebrated in this issue, was a leader in both these initiatives at the university level as past Senate chair.

In addition to serving the broader undergraduate student body with new offerings, we want to recruit more majors to geography. At Penn State, and for much of the United States, geography is a discovery major. Students are more likely to discover their interests and passions in our discipline when they take our gen ed courses. Few plan to major in geography as first-year students. Many of our current introductory courses at (zero to 100 levels, such as 10 and 115) serve both as core courses required of our majors and as the gen ed discovery. We are splitting these course roles to do better at both goals. We are launching zero-level courses that focus on fascinating problems and broad overviews of geography. At the zero level we have already begun “Global Parks and Sustainability” (GEOG 001) online, which rapidly filled to 250 students last spring. “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution” (GEOG 006) and a course on environment and food (GEOG 003) are scheduled for this coming year, with two in planning. We have great faculty getting geographic perspectives out to large groups of students with these new efforts, so we can actively recruit majors—the world needs more geographers.

Our majors will have a new set of 200-level core courses that lay groundwork for the advanced topics in our four fields: Human Geography, Environment and Society, Physical Geography, and Geographic Information Science. The 200-level courses are the prerequisites for 300-level courses that offer key themes at intermediate levels for each of the four fields. For example, climate, biogeography, geomorphology, and field methods for physical. These intermediate offerings will allow the 400-level courses to engage students in more complex and advanced topics given stronger prerequisite foundations. Behind the scenes, Jodi Vender (our undergrad adviser) and Rachel Isaacs (senior PhD student) have been assisting in the preparation of the Senate course proposal submissions and setting up consultations with the many Penn State programs and campuses that include geography in their offerings.

Our geospatial online programs group, led by Anthony Robinson, has begun planning for undergraduate program offerings to complement our popular online post-baccalaureate certificate programs and GIS master’s degree (MGIS).

Renewing our curriculum—the gen eds, student engagement, global experiences, and scaffolding advanced study—is all to support better student success in an environment where Penn State is emphasizing program assessment (for example, adding a vice provost for planning and assessment last fall). We’re poised for transitioning to new curriculum in the next academic year, for recruiting new majors, and sending better-prepared geographers out into the world.

Department comings and goings


  • Brent Yarnal, professor of geography since 1985, retired at the end of the 2015–16 academic year. Please see the appreciation on page 8.
  • Vit Voženílek, professor and department head at Palacky University Olomouc, Faculty of Science, Department of Geoinformatics, was here as a Fulbright Scholar during the spring 2016 semester. Voženílek is a vice-president of the International Cartographic Association and vice-president of Czech Cartographic Society.


  • Melissa (Missy) Fischer is our new undergraduate administrative assistant. She started on July 15, 2015.
  • Katherine Foo joined us on August 1, 2015 as a postdoctoral scholar with a two-year appointment.
  • Fritz Kessler was appointed as a senior research associate with the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute and online geospatial programs.
  • Bronwen Powell joined us as an assistant professor, joint appointment with Geography and African Studies, on January 2, 2016.
  • Jennifer Baka joined us July 1, 2016 as an assistant professor of geography, with emphasis on energy policy.
  • Joshua Inwood joined us July 1, 2016 as the geography of global ethics co-hire with the Rock Ethics Institute.
  • Adrienne Goldsberry will join the online geospatial program as a full-time faculty member on September 1, 2016.  She will focus on GIS Certificate program student advising and teaching.
  • George Panteras joined the department in as a postdoctoral scholar with the Geoinformatics and Earth Observation Laboratory in fall 2015.