Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Introduction to Geography


You are now in the process of doing something that few other Americans have done: taking a college-level geography course. In contrast with other countries such as the United Kingdom, France and India, most American colleges and universities do not even have a geography department. Because of this, you might not be familiar with geography as an advanced discipline of study and professional activity. This module is designed to introduce you to the field of geography as it is practiced at Penn State and beyond.

The Greeks were the first to use the term geography, which literally translates as “to describe the Earth.”

The geographer's task is nothing less than to understand and explain the entire world as we live in it. The geographer focuses on what's happening on Earth’s surface. If it’s below the surface, it’s more likely to be studied in the Geosciences Department. If it’s above the surface, it’s more likely to be studied in the Meteorology Department. But there is a lot of overlap among these three fields of study, which is why they are grouped together in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, along with the Energy and Mineral Engineering Department and the Materials Science and Engineering Department.

The Penn State Geography Department (and many others) divides geography into four sub-disciplines:

  • Human Geography: how human societies are arranged and interact around the world, including economies, governments, and cultures;
  • Physical Geography: how natural and geophysical phenomena are arranged and interact around the world, including ecosystems, mountain ranges, bodies of water, and climates;
  • Environment & Society Geography: interactions between humans and the natural and geophysical world, including human impacts on the environment and environmental impacts on humanity;
  • Geographic Information Sciences: techniques for acquiring, analyzing and displaying geographic information, including satellites, software programs, and maps.

Geography 30 is Penn State's introductory course for environment & society geography. It is offered to students at both the University Park campus and the World Campus.

At University Park, Geography 30 is a core course for the undergraduate programs in Geography. Introductory courses for the other subdisciplines are Geog 010 (physical), 020 (human), and 160 (GISciences). Geog 040 is World Regional Geography, which presents both the human and physical geography of every region of the world.

At World Campus, Geography 30 is a core course for the new online Bachelor of Arts degree in Energy and Sustainability Policy. For both University Park and World Campus, Penn State also offers many activities and resources on sustainability through the Center for Sustainability and the Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

This broad focus makes geography a challenging and exciting discipline. Geography intersects with many other disciplines across the natural and social sciences, engineering, and the humanities. For example, biogeography intersects with biology; political geography intersects with political science. This image shows some more specific topics within geography.

One hallmark of geography is place-based inquiry. Geographers recognize that natural and social conditions are often unique to a specific region. In order to better understand a place's unique or unusual characteristics, geographers often perform field research, meaning that they go to a place and observe the natural and social conditions in that place. The place need not be remote or exotic. You can conduct field research simply by observing the place that you live in.

Geography today is a vibrant academic and professional discipline.

Geographers today work in a wide range of settings, including research, government, technology companies, and non-profits. Some specific examples can be found on the Geography Department's Careers and Internships page. Please scan this page to get a sense of the breadth of options available to geographers.

Reading Assignment: "MapQuest: Office of the Geographer Makes Information Visual"

The United States Department of State is responsible for managing international relations. It contains an Office of the Geographer that provides a range of geographic services in support of the State Department's international relations mission. To learn more about what the Office of the Geographer does, please read the article "MapQuest: Office of the Geographer Makes Information Visual." The article begins on page 30 of the March 2009 State Magazine.

As you read this, consider the following questions. What does the Office of the Geographer do? What types of geography does it use? What skillsets must its employees have? What international relations issues and incidents has it been involved in? Why is geography important to international relations?