Friday, March 13, 2015

Being a Geography major

I've already written part something kind of related to this on Dayre, but I thought this topic might be a nice blog post as well where I can really expand on it. I know my blog tends to lean on the fashion side, but really, I kind of think of it as a personal space to write about things that I think might help other people as a resource on the internet based on my personal experience. I don't want to, nor do I ever intend to, come off as an authority on these subjects, but as someone who wondered about this in the past and tried to google for an answer, I just wanted a post on this topic to be out there coming from an individual rather than just college departments or people making jokes.
Anyway, this might be a little boring for those of you who read my blog for fashion content, but a few people on Dayre actually seemed to like this topic, so maybe it might be a little interesting? It has a bit of college talk though. I'll try to include pictures where I can, but fair warning that this post will likely be text heavy since I didn't know I'd be writing a post about this and don't actually have a large variety of photos to go with each topic lol.

My "journey" to becoming a Geography major
I spent my freshman year at a private (expensive) college in California intending to be a graphic design major (after entering undeclared), and after the first semester, I kind of realized it wasn't worth it. After winter break, I decided to apply to the university back at home because I didn't really much care where I got my degree from - just as long as I received it, and so may as well pay in-state tuition right? Lol. I finished up my freshman year at the school in California and then started my 2nd year of college in Hawaii. I decided I no longer wanted to pursue graphic design at this new school, but I already had a few art classes under my belt, and I really wanted to finish my degree in 4 years so initially I thought I would change to Art History just because I had a few specific credits towards that already. During my first semester, I took a lot of general classes needed by this particular college and then decided maybe I wanted to be a Chinese major instead (which wasn't even an option at my first school). However, after I finished the first semester, I decided that probably wasn't the way to go for me after all, and sat down and tried to figure out what the heck I was doing lol. I basically went through the list of majors and clicked on anything that sounded remotely interesting and that allowed me to get my degree without putting in an additional 4 years and essentially starting from scratch. And Geography fit the bill!
[The reason I typed all that out instead of just simply telling you that I randomly picked Geography as my major was that I wanted to show that you don't have to to know what your major is when you first enter college or even know which college is right for you from the start and that you can make a change if you want to! I think a lot of (American) students feel a lot of pressure during their senior year of high school to pick the #1 best option, but hardly anyone knows what the "best option" is. And even if you think you do, your life/situation might change and then what used to be your best choice isn't anymore. I know it's not an option for every single person out there, but don't be afraid to make a change if that's what's right for you. Just because you pick a major freshman year doesn't mean you're absolutely stuck if you find the classes extremely boring or even too hard for you. You're unlikely to do well in school if you're absolutely hating and resenting it. I'm not advocating just giving up (because, of course, you should ask for help from TAs, teachers, advisors if you need it first), but just that you shouldn't feel chained down by one decision you made at 17 or 18 when it can be changed. I bounced around for a bit but I'm so happy I ended up where I did, and I feel like my life would hardly be the same if I had stuck with any of the previous 3 majors I had or made myself stay at the school I attended freshman year.]
Lol, okay so now you know that I only picked Geography as my major because I was lazy and didn't want to pick a major that required a lot of credits to graduate. At my school, to get a BA in Geography, you only need to take 42 specific credits. That's what sold me instantly lol. Well, that and the description did sound interesting to me tbh.

Being a Geography (geotechnical) student
This is based on my experience at my university only. Many other schools have different programs with different emphases and components, but I will only be speaking about my personal experience and the program as it was when I attended UHM. 
When most people think of Geography as a field of study, they think of memorizing countries, states, capitals, physical feature locations and things like that. That is certainly a component of Geography, but definitely not its entirety. Geography is a social science and essentially investigates place. The Geography program/major actually went through a little bit of restructuring while I was there but the major was separated into 3 "streams" - Human, Environmental and Geotechnical.
I'm not in school anymore and I don't feel like thinking too hard about this, so I'm just going to copy and paste the descriptions for each of those from the UHM catalog (<-- click for source) -
"Human geography investigates the cultural, economic, and political processes that shape human experiences on the Earth; the relationship between the environment, society, and culture; and the nature of place in the Asia-Pacific region.
Environmental geography engages in a systematic study of the Earth's physical environment (atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere) and considers the challenges associated with natural resource management and global environmental change.
Geographic technologies include the study of cartography, geographic information systems (GIS), and remote sensing science."
The way I see it, human geography studies the relationship between people and place and is somewhat similar to cultural anthropology to an extent. Environmental geography is kind of the science part where you study how places formed and why. The geotech side is creating maps and using geographical data. I mean, really it's using technology with geography lol.
I was a Geography major with a geotech emphasis, so I'm mainly going to be talking about that since I know it best. There are a plethora of classes you can take at any school, but the classes I chose to take were mainly centered around GIS and cartography. GIS stands for geographic information system(s) and essentially it's a computer-based program that allows users to visualize, manage, analyze, manipulate, store and create spatial data. Cartography is creating maps. Obviously GIS and cartography can easily go hand-in-hand, especially in contemporary times. It used to be that the only way to create maps was to draw them my hand. Now, they can easily be created on the computer. (Sometimes not so easily though lol.) One of the most commonly used GIS programs is by ESRI called ArcGIS. There are many different cartography products out there, but one program that you will probably recognize is Adobe Illustrator! Maps can really be made using any graphics program and really if you have the spatial data, you can create maps of anything and everything.
I think one of the reasons I really enjoyed my classes was that I was learning something that was totally new to me. That, of course, also made it quite difficult at times, but I'm a student who enjoys a little bit of a challenge so things don't get too boring. I didn't even know GIS existed before I was a Geography major. And I never really thought about who made or designed maps, but there is certainly a need.

The GIS classes I took mainly dealt with ArcGIS. It's not a free software, but the school provided us with student copies that would expire after a year if we wanted to load the programs onto our own computers. Otherwise, we would have to use the lab computers. Since I was living reasonably close to campus at the time, I opted to use the school computers a lot because my laptop wasn't really meant to handle programs like that lol. Anyway, the GIS classes I took were mostly lab-based with some additional textbook reading. It's really one of those things that you kind of learn by doing though. We would often be trying to follow along with the teacher on our computers while he led the discussion on a projector screen. Once you kind of get the hang of what all the basic functions do, it's not that bad, but it really takes a little bit to get used to it.
There's really a lot of components to GIS and I'm not going to go into the nitty gritty details here because this is already getting boring, but one of my favorite mapping activities/labs from school was suitability mapping. That's basically when you take spatial data and manipulate/interpret it to show suitable areas for a topic based on specific factors. For example, let's say that I want to build a retirement facility but don't know where to start looking for land to purchase. However, I do know that I would ideally like it to be close to at least one hospital and/or fire station, and I also don't want the land to be on a slope. Additionally, I don't want to go through the trouble of the political process that it would require to change the zoning for an area. So, I only want to look at areas that are OK to develop, have a hill slope of less than 15 degrees and are within 5 miles of the nearest hospital. Furthermore, I need at least 5 acres of land. I can use a program like ArcGIS to figure out where there is available land on Oahu based on those factors. I'll probably want to continue to narrow it down with better factors if I was actually looking to build a facility like that, but I think you get the picture. My result would be a map highlighting the suitable areas for my new retirement facility.

Cartography classes really helped me fall in love with Geography, I think. First of all, I had a pretty great teacher. But second, it kind of paired my initial interested in graphic design with Geography! Basically cartography is map design so there somewhat of an "artistic" element to it. You have to pick the right orientation, fonts, sizing, color schemes, position, etc etc. There's actually quite a lot of components that go into a map, and there are definitely some that are better than others in terms of design. I took two semesters of cartography classes. In the first one, we used Adobe Illustrator a lot in conjunction with mapping programs. If you're in an art related field, I'm sure Illustrator is no big deal, but I had personally never used it before, and I really enjoyed it. Looking at all the maps from each member of the class, there were some students in the class who were more scientifically (than artistically) inclined lol.
Here's an example of a map with some bad cartography-related choices (right). Sorry, I don't know where the original files of these maps went, so I only have the hard copies to show you examples from and they were printed on glossy paper as a final draft so they don't photograph well lol wtf. Anyway, this was one of the first maps I made in the class. Poor AND odd color choices imo. It highlighted the difference quite well but I don't think I would ever create a map like this today lol. So many colors going on and Sand Island is a made made area so idk why I thought to make it green of all colors since it's not like it's green there in the least.
This was another map we were asked to make near the beginning (left). I don't mind the font choice but I think I would probably change the inset (bottom right). And make the north arrow and scale bar stand out a liiiiiittle bit less. + Maybe lighten the color of the ocean? I think this just looks cool because the island kind of looks like the profile of a dragon. But of course, that has nothing to do with cartography lol. That's just the natural geography haha.
This was kind of a fun one (right). It's skinny because it's supposed to be a tri-fold pamphlet cover. The assignment was just to showcase Lana'i and make a tourist want to pick up the pamphlet based on our design/map, and we could pick any topic we wanted. After researching what to do on Lana'i, I decided to focus on the island as a wedding location so there are 4 points to show the top wedding locations in Lana'i. I was proud of myself for digitizing the bride and groom and the bow with my limited Illustrator skills having only picked it up a few weeks before lololol.
For this assignment (left) we had to use a program that distorted the world map based on indices and the lines of latitude and longitude and other stuff like that. I think it was called Flex Projector. Anyway, we were supposed to use the features of that program to emphasize or showcase a topic of our choosing. I kind of cheated and separated out Japan in Illustrator, and then made it larger, but I created the overall shape of the world map in the "I" with the program lol. I actually kind of had a hard time with this assignment in terms of coming up with a topic since it was so broad, but when I figured out I should make the map in the shape of a letter, it all kind of came together. The dots on the map are the locations of the factories in Japan where they produce Yebisu. Plus, it kind of looks like a can, right lol? I would possibly change the colors so it's not like peas and carrots but I was semi proud of this. I digitized in the Yebisu lettering and the little guy in the logo as well which was hard for me lol. Don't look too close.
In this class, we even learned how to use Adobe Flash for maps! (Again, probably not a big deal if you're in the graphic/arts field, but very exciting for me because I never thought I would get to learn how to use a program like that as a Geography major!)

One of my favorite classes was Field Mapping. It's not directly related to the work I did in my GIS or cartography classes in terms of main subject matter, but all are kind of intertwined with the final product, of course. This was actually a Saturday course which almost made me not want to take it since it was scheduled for 08:30am to 04:00pm every Saturday, but I heard great things about the course and the teacher, and I could not have made a better decision to take it. It was awesome. I was introduced to so many tools and programs that I probably never would have touched or even thought about if not for this class. We started off with just easy stuff like creating a map based on distance and a compass (for angle) and then vice versa, but then graduated to using a GPS unit to navigate and plot points. We even got to work with alidades! 
I'm going to be a bit lazy again and not try to paraphrase what an alidade is in my own words and instead just point you to the wikipedia page if you're interested in reading more about it specifically. Personally I had never heard of these before, and was excited to learn to use them since this is a pretty old tool. If I remember correctly, for the ones that we were using (there are more complicated/special ones), we taped a paper to a table and looked through it to see the vertical rod with height measurements where a particular object we wanted to map was located. Based on the angle of the alidade and the number you could see on the height stick, that's where you drew the object on the paper based on a conversion and a ruler measurement. So essentially, for our purposes, this would be used to map where specific things were in an area in relation to each other but not it's exact geographic location in the world. For example, there's a pile rock there and a clump of trees here and there's a ditch way over there and it's XX long, etc.
I don't know if that wasn't a very good explanation but unfortunately I don't think I have any of the maps we made. And the maps we ended up with weren't the best anyway since you end up having to draw in the features like trees and rock formations and stuff where you put the point and the people in my group were not artistic like that lol. But this is a good tool for immediate mapping of important features in a landscape.You can definitely use the map you create with this in conjunction with other tools to create a map with geographical ties (like to a base station) or further illustrate on the computer based on what you've drawn in the field for a stand alone map that's good for hardcopy.
Using the alidade actually involved a lot of calculation between the number that was measured in height (on the stick seen through the alidade) and the number you needed to measure for length on the paper. We worked in 3 person teams for this. One person manned the alidade, one person held the height stick (I know there's a real name for it but it escapes me at this point) and one person takes notes and does calculations. We often had to use a walkie talkie to communicate between the people at the table and the person with the ruler - letting them know if they needed to turn it/hold it straighter/when to move on because we were often at too far of a distance to just constantly shout, especially with other teams working in the same area. This whole course was mostly centered around team work except for a few units, and I was so fortunate to be taking it with two fantastic classmates.

My absolute favorite part of the field mapping class was learning about/how to use total stations! I had never dreamed that I would be able to use something like this. (Not that I really thought about it before but I love learning to use machines like this.) I'm going to be lazy yet again and point you to the total station wikipedia page for the most accurate definition, but basically there are two parts to making it work. One is the total station itself (see below on left) and the prism on a rod (see below on right). The total station collects information based on a signal reflection from the prism. 
Again, this is the kind of tool that would help you map a landscape, but this ALSO collects geographic information (where you are in the world) where the alidade could not (since it doesn't have any electronics on it). There's a lot of components in total stations, but this can basically be a really accurate survey tool, and I'm sure you've seen people in reflective vests using these on the side of the road at some point? They're definitely helpful for planning for construction and things like that.
For certain projects, we would use one total station and several prisms lol (see left). We're trying to accurately show the extent of the grass. So the rods are all lined up along the grass and the person operating the total station will be "shooting" each of the prisms (left to right). When the prism on the left is captured, that guy will move to the right of the line and the person on the total station would just continue to "shoot" prisms down the line until we finished the extent of the grass line. (Hope that makes sense lol.) I don't know if how I explained it sounds really boring, but really I loved doing this! Actually I mostly volunteered to take notes in our 3 person team (1 person operating the total station, 1 person holding the prism, 1 person taking notes) because that was most important to me (to have good notes), but I also liked doing each of the other parts as well and we rotated fairly. Total stations can be sooo wildly accurate and I just love that. I mean, technology!! Come on!! (wtf) After we were done, we usually processed the data in AutoCAD which would show all the point features we took. Then we could further process with other GIS and/or cartography software to get a final map. 

Geography Club
This isn't part of the curriculum (it's a club so it's obviously extra-curricular) but I also wanted to share about the Geography Club at my school! It was kind of defunct in the first years I was in the program, but during my last year, a few of my classmates decided they wanted to revamp it and build it anew. I was someone they asked to be a part of it and was essentially the secretary for the club. We didn't have a lot of members, but enough to make events fun. Some of the activities we did were hiking, whale watching, aerial photography and beach clean ups and things like that. Anything you could relate to geography was a possible activity - which is basically almost anything outdoors lol. Plus there was the occasional geography-related movie night. The hikes were probably the most popular though. One of the Geography graduate students was actually focusing on drones/aerial photography with kites, and he had some equipment he let us use, so on most hikes, we would try to set it up once we got to the top and take a few photos.
For some reason I don't remember which hike this is...
But it's a nice view lol. So first you need to set up the kite and anchor it to something.
Then, if you have the right wind conditions, it'll launch into the sky and then there's some kind of pulley system to get the camera equipment up there as well. The camera shutter and angle can be  controlled by a remote from the "ground". But you definitely have to watch out if the wind dies because then the camera and everything will come crashing down.
Sorry I'm a little rusty on the details and intricacies of exactly how it works lol.

As a club, we also did some kite photography at this fishpond area.
The people who were responsible for the land wanted to get some aerial photos of how the land was changing over time. They got in touch with one of the Geography department teachers (or maybe they already knew him) and he asked us, as the Geography Club, to help out. Using the kite to do photography is fun in general, but it's even more fun when it can be used to help people!
We used a member's Jeep as the anchor this time because the wind could get pretty strong and we didn't really have anything else (like a good tree or something) to use in this open field.
Here's  ^^^ some better pictures to help explain how the camera apparatus is hoisted up after the kite is in the air.
Once the kite and camera are in the air, someone or even several people need to control where the kite is flying so you can actually capture photos of what you want lol. After we had it initially in the air, several people grabbed a hold of the kite strings, we were able to walk with the kite to the area that was the subject of the photographs.
For this particular set up, we can't see what the photos look like as we are taking them, but there are more complicated/better set ups where you can. However, that usually adds a lot of weight to the camera because it requires more battery, so this is a lighter and simpler option. You just might need to take a lot more pictures since you have to guess as to whether or not the pictures will show the area you want lol. The grad student who lent us this equipment actually built it himself! So that's kind of like where Geography can intersect with Engineering imo. And actually there is a bit of crossover with GIS and Engineering in general.

Here's just a few more photos of us learning how to use the kite. I just love some of these photos so I wanted to share them lol. I didn't control the kite much myself, so I stuck to taking photos...of the kite taking photos.
On the left below is a meter to check wind speeds and on the right is a close up of the camera equipment that goes up with the kite. You can see the rudder to help direct it with the wind lol.
Up, up and away!
This is something I know I wouldn't have gotten into if I wasn't a Geography student and another one of those things I just think is so cool lol. I'm glad someone thought to revamp the Geography Club. Honestly, it just sounds like something really lame, especially to non-Geography students, but with the right flyer design and plastering it in enough places, we were actually able to get some students we didn't even know that weren't already part of the Geography department to come out to some of the hiking events despite the name of the club lol.

Sorry I know some of these descriptions (especially pertaining to the Geography Club stuff) were kind of shotty. I wish I had been blogging while I was a student so I could have shared the most accurate and detailed version of these things with you! But now I'm just trying to pull things from memory based on some photos I took and that's not the best lol. But hopefully you still got a little glimpse of what it could be like to be a Geography major!
I think I've already gone into more detail than I initially intended, so I'm going to split this post here. I'll have another upcoming blog post dealing more with the vocational side of Geography in relation to my experience as a geotech-specific Geography major.
Hope there was at least a little info here that you didn't know before (and probably didn't need to) if you actually made it to the bottom of the post! If you have any questions, I'd be happy to try and answer them, but it's been two years since I graduated so tbh I'm a little rusty with some of the intricacies of what I did as a student since I wiped them from my memory lol. I'll do my best though! This doesn't necessary definitively represent the average Geography student's experience in college, but I did have a great time in my program, so I did want to share in case it might be helpful to someone in the future. Geography can be so many things and be used is so many ways. 
And P.S. I am actually really bad at knowing what countries are where or what is the capital of whatever so that's really not an essential part of it imo. (Although of course those are generally good things to know lol.)


  1. Ooohhh, really interesting read. ^.^ I liked reading about the main classes you took. Definitely not for me since I don't really enjoy being outside much - But that made it more interesting for me cause it's something I would never do personally.

    1. Bahaha I don't really enjoy being outside that much either but at the same time, it's hard to be indoors all day everyday on a computer so I'm glad my current job breaks it up a bit. I think it's just the experience of doing something totally new!

  2. Very interesting! I didn't know you were initially into graphic design. I too was interested in it as well, but I had a love for math and science, so now I'm in computer science. I liked reading about all the classes you took and I never knew geography majors could get so hands-on.

    1. Yes! Haha it totally depends on your program and you're school but I actually think a lot of Geography majors, no matter what stream, at my uni did end up doing a lot of field work bc that's what they were interested in and took the opportunity to. Although I'm sure you can adopt field work in almost any major if you're determined enough lol.