Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Mr. Dennis Hunink, geography instructor, accomplished GIS developer, and creator of the innovative course, “Topografie in de Klas.”

When I first started hearing about an amazing geography instructor in the Netherlands a few years ago, who was also an accomplished GIS developer, I immediately wanted to find out more. How can someone be so instructionally proficient and yet technically expert as well? How does a full-time educator have time to learn how to develop GIS applications for student use? I finally had the pleasure of meeting the man behind the stories, Dennis Hunink, face-to-face at the EUROGEO conference in Belgium, and it seemed appropriate that our first joint project would be a short field trip to where latitude 51 north and longitude 4 east cross, in a field in Belgium.  My colleagues and I were so impressed with his work that we invited him to the Esri User Conference in San Diego to present his innovative activities. These include Veldwerk 2.0, which uses Esri’s Collector for ArcGIS app in the field to engage students in spatially understanding their own community. Now it is several years later, and my respect for Dennis continues to grow. My hope is that upon reading this column, you will agree that he merits inclusion as one of the planet’s GeoInspirations.

Dennis serves as a geography teacher at a high school in Zwijndrecht in the Netherlands. He also is working part-time on a broad variety of projects, of which many relate to education in general and geography education in particular. One such project is “Topografie in de Klas,” which engages students in learning about topography through mapping. Dutch students are required to learn the locations of 300 specified cities, bodies of water, and mountain ranges around the world. Dennis took this rather dry topic and enlivened it through the use of GIS. What is especially innovative about this, to me, is that he had to write his own application to accomplish it. In other words, he is practicing what we are often telling students: that by learning to code in the field of GIS, you open up so many possibilities. Another of his innovations is Veldwerk 2.0, where students collect data on trees, light poles, pedestrian counts, and a variety of other physical and cultural aspects of their campus and community and understand them using web maps and spatial analysis. Once students load the specified map into the Collector for ArcGIS smartphone app, they go into the field and answer all the questions displayed on the map that appears on their phones. They can do so with or without an internet connection, thanks to the offline capabilities featured in the smartphone app.

Dennis teaches courses that help other teachers use his methods and tools. He and his students recently gave a demonstration to Alida Oppers, director general of primary and secondary education in the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science in the Netherlands. “This is a great example [of] how innovative technology can be used in education,” Oppers was quoted as saying in ArcNews. “It makes classwork more visual and allows students to experiment. This type of education is effective because the students remember the lessons much better and they get the opportunity to reinforce their lessons outside of the classroom.”  

I asked Dennis if he could identify the most important thing, whether a class, book, person, event, or something else, that convinced him to enter this field. He shared this fascinating story: “The decision to become a teacher was a direct result of an experience I had on a Monday morning when I was only 18 years old. I just bought my very first car and decided to drop by a friend of mine, who was working as a teacher of auto mechanics for kids with a broad variety of problems. Let’s say the ‘society dropouts.’ When I visited his classroom, full of cars, 12 students and three teachers, I really felt inspired. It was so impressive to see the way those teachers were doing everything they could to influence these kids and turn their lives for the better. It instantly became clear to me: I want to do my part, I want to try to do anything and everything I can to contribute to the education of young people who are discovering life, facing difficulties, and developing themselves in every way they can.”

“From that moment on, I knew I wanted to become a teacher. The only thing left was to determine which subject I would like to teach the most. At that time, at only 18 years old and a high school graduate for just about one and a half years, my subject of choice was not that well thought through as it would be if I had to make that choice again right now (at age 27). Or let’s put it this way: Making adult decisions wasn’t really my thing at the time. Instead, I came up with a shortlist of subjects I enjoyed … [in] high-school and that I felt useful, even after high school. That shortlist featured only two subjects: Geography and economics. Since my mom had been an economics teacher for several years, I quickly crossed that one off my list. At the time, copying the career path of a parent felt as the worst way to go. What I didn’t know at the time was that choosing geography actually meant choosing both subjects.  There’s no field like geography that incorporates economics in such a broad and meaningful way. After several years of geography teacher education, I continued my own education at Utrecht University, studying social geography, while part-time teaching at the same school I work at today. During my social geography study, I enjoyed a lot of freedom to pick the courses to enroll in, which ended up to be a lot of economic geography and GIS courses. The best one was using GIS to map economic geographic data.”

 I asked Dennis which person, class, or topic has inspired him most during his career. He replied, “Without a doubt: Ben de Pater.” [Dr. de Pater is associate professor of human geography, planning, and education at the University of Utrecht]. “He combines a bizarre amount of geographic knowledge with very, very inspiring and encouraging ways of activating and motivating his students. He personally gave me the greatest compliment I’ve ever received during my study: After creating a GIS map on the ACLED database, he invited me to write a co-authored article for a Dutch geography magazine. In addition, his way to bring the philosophy of science into geography education has been genius; making everyone even more skeptical, curious, and inspired than any of the other professors did.”

 What project in geography is Dennis most proud of? “Again, without a doubt: Topografie in de Klas. I’ve founded it, created it, and [have managed] it for several years now. This (free) online teaching method helps students in the Netherlands master mandatory topography (content).” Dennis told ArcNews that he decided to create this because he found that the vast majority of the educational mapping materials on the web lacked a real didactic vision, nor were they cartographically correct. He partnered with Esri Nederland and used the available APIs to develop the maps and server space. Students pick specific features, such as rivers or cities, and then engage in a series of questions about them. The instructor reviews the results online, and the student can save all materials for future reference. Students can also share their results with friends via Facebook and Twitter. Today, more than half of the secondary students in the Netherlands who take topography classes use Dennis’ system.

What does Dennis believe is the most important thing we need to work on as the geographic community? “That’s a tough question. I don’t feel I’ve made all of the efforts I could make to the community and therefore don’t feel entitled to make any comments on what the community should or shouldn’t be working on. That being said, I do have a personal challenge that might be … worth something for community members as well. When I was still studying at Utrecht University, I experienced a very strong sense of belonging in regards to the community of social geography. At the same time, I felt isolated. Many of the professors and even classmates did not care about other geography disciplines, like physical geography, let alone a certain interest in other non-geographical field like economics, social behavior, etc. I do acknowledge all those amazing people who do like to work in an interdisciplinary way; I know there are a lot of them. But, in my experience, they are still a minority. I believe we have to turn that, when it comes to high school geography. Too often I meet fellow teachers who talk about ‘their subject/classes’ as something that stands totally apart from other subjects, like economics, history, etc. I think that’s wrong. I strongly believe that student learning outcomes will increase when they can link all that they’re learning during all these different subjects.”

“Let’s draw a small example: I love using GIS with my students. We’re using lots of spatial data to gain insights into real-world-issues. One of the most important questions that students raise after making a spatial GIS map is the question: Why? Why am I seeing concentrations of ethnic citizens at a certain location? Why is pollution higher in a certain area? Why do shopping malls arise in a particular location, while malls on other locations close? There is simply NO WAY we can answer all these questions without combining the insights gained by historians, economists, and others. We always need to combine the academic knowledge of several fields to answer questions asked during a geography class.  So, long story short, I believe there’s a great potential for making high school geography a more meaningful experience for the students of today and tomorrow, simply by fading the boundaries of secondary-school geography and other secondary school subjects. Let’s share knowledge and skills on a broader scale, and make education even more meaningful.”

 I asked Dennis if he would share some of his advice to new geographers and educators. He replied: “Keep asking yourself, ‘what can I do?’ There are a lot of people who are perfectly able to identify issues, problems, and opportunities for geography. Wouldn’t it be great if now and then someone raises his or her hand and says: ‘I’ve got some skills on this or that, perhaps I could contribute to a solution?’ The true innovations that may be ahead may come from all those skills educators have, but do not have to use in their daily profession. All of us are capable of a lot more than we need to use during our everyday jobs. Some may be skilled programmers; others may excel in video editing or even building sculptures from wood. But what would happen if one would bring these skills to the table? If an educator who builds scale models of Star Wars figures during his or her free time started to model mini-worlds to explain geographic topics, for example? That’s where innovation might come from: Mixing worlds, blending skills, and striving forward!”

For more about Dennis, read this article about his work in geography education in the GeoInformatics journal and in ArcNews, read about his school, Develstein College, and follow him on Twitter.