A Hidden Gem at WCI

Social studies always seemed like an afterthought in elementary school. It often ended with us doing textbook work or colouring in a map because the teachers seemed handcuffed to a curriculum that prioritized spending the extra couple minutes on a math lesson or practicing for the next big CASI test.  All the while, social studies sat on the back burner, feeling like nothing more than a make-work project.

This perception of social studies translates into high school in the form of Geography, leaving many students with a sour taste in their mouth, with skepticism about enrolling in later courses as a result.

The Geography department at WCI is led by Mr. Menhennet, who holds an Honours Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo where he specialized in Geography, Earth Sciences, Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

I am taking a senior course in Geomatics: Geotechnologies in Action because I heard from friends that the class was enjoyable and focused on GIS and digital mapping. Taking the course has pushed me to improve my problem solving skills, creative thinking, and teamwork. All these skills are vital when becoming part of the work force, and getting an opportunity to improve these skills in a rewarding manner is amazing. I find the largest benefit of taking Geomatics is applying the skills I’ve attained to real world applications.

Since taking Geomatics, it has become one of my favourite courses that I have taken in high school, but without having friends to recommend it for me, I would have never taken it. I wish we had learned more about GIS and mapping in grade 9, as I probably would have taken the course in both grade 11 and 12, and I would have been further pushed towards a career in GIS and environment studies.

Coming into high school, most students already have a pre-determined idea of what geography class is going to be like. The grade 9 geography curriculum covers a wide range of topics from energy to biodiversity to population, which many students can find hard to learn about.

When I asked Menhennet if he thought geography at WCI should be a compulsory course, he said, “Our [geography] department would be much smaller [if the grade 9 course was not compulsory] since our senior courses rely on the enrolment of our grade 9 course.”

Students having to take a compulsory grade 9 course to keep a department alive would at first seem a little off, but after taking a second to look at the amazing program we offer, and the current opportunities that are out there for geographers it is absurd to think we could lose such a valuable asset to our school.  I think adding some simpler concepts of geomatics to the grade 9 curriculum would show the juniors something new in geography and how exciting it really is. It is a growing profession in the workforce, and encouraging students to head in that direction is something that needs to be done.

At WCI we have a small Geography program, both in terms of enrolment and number of courses. We offer an abysmal third of the ten senior level geography courses available in the Ontario curriculum. At Waterloo Oxford District Secondary School and Huron Heights Secondary School, their geography programs both offer six senior level geography courses. Preston High School offers five of the senior level geography courses, yet we at WCI remain a magnet school for Geography.  You can now begin to see my concerns.

When asked about the lack of geography courses at WCI, Menhennet explained that “At WCI we are heavily focused on academic courses in science and math. Other schools have student bodies that are less focused on math and science and it translates into a greater number of sections in other departments like business, history, languages and geography.” This was not the answer I was expecting, but it does make sense to me.

The focus on math and science makes it hard for students to take courses that are not in those fields due to the 34 credit cap. This restriction is unfortunate because the discipline has the potential to teach a lot of skills that are applicable in many fields. As Menhennet suggested to me, “Geography and geospatial thinking creates creativity in problem solving.” He also pointed out some of the many potential career opportunities that become available through this field: “Being multidisciplinary, geospatial technology gives students the skills they need for success in further education or their chosen discipline. Applications range from climate research modeling to retail site selection, environmental impact studies, and more.”

Geography is currently a course that students are being required to take in grade 9, before sweeping it under the rug for the rest of high school. It’s a shame that so many students miss out on a program at WCI, which I think is one of the most valuable and unique ones offered. It has state-of-the-art software and equipment, but because of previous negative experiences and an awkward grade 9 curriculum many students won’t give the program a second look. With more of a focus on integrating GIS and problem solving into the grade 9 curriculum, I believe that there will be a much larger enrolment in the senior geography courses at WCI.