Teaching the Geography of Wisconsin Online: Part 1

This is an early draft of a journal article I’ve been working on. It will be posted here in two parts.


Many geography departments routinely teach a course focusing on the geography of their home state and mine is no different. The Geography of Wisconsin is a second year (sophomore year) course about the human and physical geography of the state. Several student demographic and material resource factors presented an opportunity to explore new pedagogical methods when I was assigned the course to teach. A majority of students enrolling in the course were non-majors, many of which were nontraditional students. I lacked a suitable textbook to support the course but a wealth of web-based content was available. Faced with the changing demographics and needs of students, and availability of digital content, I decided to teach the course online.

Addressing student needs with an online course

Several issues converged to convert from a lecture to asynchronous online format. A majority of students enrolled in the course to satisfy their social science general degree requirements. Teacher education students  comprise a significant portion of the class as K-12 state teaching certification in geography requires such a course. Our education students have heavy course loads and often find it difficult to fit some courses into their schedules. Among these two groups are a number of nontraditional students.  Like many schools, the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point has an increasing number of nontraditional learners entering our institution. Family and work-related demands often require flexible course scheduling for these students. As a result, I deemed an online course could suit these students needs.

Not being a native born Wisconsinite, I felt odd believing that I was the “expert” about Wisconsin and those attending my class who were born and raised here were empty vessels to be filled. I was better suited for guiding the students to pertinent sources of information and let them develop a knowledge base concerning the geography of Wisconsin. Thus I stepped down from being the “sage on the stage” and into the role of a “guide on the side” . Doing so eliminated the need to deliver standard hour-long lectures and replacing them with alternative means to deliver the course content. Eliminating lectures allowed me to explore constructivist ways to learn about the geography of Wisconsin. I desired to allow more student control over knowledge building but within a flexible set of parameters.  I wanted to give students ownership of their learning and encourage active learning rather than the passive lecture format used by previous instructors.

I believe that moving away from the lecture model and providing students with a variety of learning modalities has encouraged more active learning. Active learning requires students to actively participate in their own learning through reading, thinking, reflecting and writing, which allows students to gain a better understanding of  material than the the passive approach of a lecture format (Meyers and Jones 1992).

The most radical departure from teaching of other courses was the elimination of exams. Assessment is less about gaining facts and more about learning through personal discovery and inquiry. Freed from exams, there was no reason to not offer the course as an online course.

Tapping into online materials

There is no current textbook dealing with the geography of Wisconsin per se. Course materials have been cobbled together with selections from Ostergren and Vale, Wisconsin Land and Life: A Portrait of the State, wonderful collection of essays, and Wisconsin’s Past and Present: A Historical Atlas of Wisconsin, and excellent compendium of maps and explanation of the historical geography of Wisconsin produced by The Wisconsin Cartographer’s Guild.

Online materials were also called upon to delver course content. A variety of statistical and descriptive information about the state is available online in the state “Blue Book”.  Several past editions are accessible for historical comparisons and changing geographical patterns, especially related to economic and cultural geography. Online audio and video programs are used to deliver course content. Fortunately, Wisconsin Public TV and Wisconsin Public Radio streams several programs relevant to the course. Each unit has a video assignment.

Geography of Wisconsin: The Course

Course Delivery

The course is delivered through the Desire2Learn (D2L) content management system. Doing so made it relatively easy to create course web pages. Assignment dropboxes are a useful way to centralize the storage of assignments and provide feedback. D2L appends each uploaded file with the student’s name assuring proper identification. The discussion forums were used for posting the Wisconsin Issues in the News assignment. The threaded discussion made it easy to check class progress and grade responses.


The required assignments pose a significant amount of grading, much more than what had been required when it was a lecture-based course. Without the aid of a teaching assistant, I have found reliance of well-structured grading rubrics valuable. I created a scoring sheet for each assignment that makes grading very efficient. Each rubric contains the items required to be addressed in each assignment.

Course Assignments

The course is broken into four units, 1) The Physical Geography of Wisconsin, 2) The Cultural Geography of Wisconsin, 3) The Urban and Economic Geography of Wisconsin, and 4) Environmental Issues Facing Wisconsin. Each unit shares a common set of activities. I provide the guide posts and objectives, they research the topic to complete the objectives.

Reading Summaries. This assignment requires students to reflect on the required course readings. Each reading is summarized and followed by reflections on what the student learned from them. Most students willingly offer reflections on how the readings have affected them personally. Many students express appreciation for learning about the natural environment in which they grew up.

Video Assignment. Online courses make it easy to incorporate video assignments as they can be accessed by students whenever they wish. Wisconsin Public Television streams a variety of programs online that are suitable for my course. Students must answer a set of short answer questions related to the video for each assignment.

Wisconsin Issues in the News. This is a threaded discussion assignment using current events related to a particular unit. Students are awarded extra credit points for responding to a classmate’s post. Students are given the following format for posting their assignment:

  • Title
  • Author (person or organization)
  • Date
  • Source (newspaper, organization newsletter)
  • Web address (URL)
  • Summary – what the article is about
  • Scale of issue: local, regional, state
  • Impressions – what you learned

My motivation is to get students to use news resources to learn more about their state. They are required to research and read articles that they may never considered reading. Emphasis is placed on the “Impressions”, which sometimes yields interesting and confrontational responses, especially issues related to immigration and the environment.

Example (student name has been removed):

  • Land Trust to Donate Slinger-area Farm With Glacial Formations for State Park
  • Author: Dom Behm
  • January 30, 2009
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/38680702.html
  • Summary: This article talks about land that is to be donated to make a state park. The land (formerly a family farm) is 414 acres of land, but more specifically, land that was shaped by the last glacier of Wisconsin. On it are many kames, or hills of sand and debris left behind by the melting glaciers. The park will encompass 10 visible kames, with others hidden away in the forests. The land transfer will also allow a passage for the growing 1,000 mile long Ice Age National Trail, which is open to the public to practice recreational activities on including skiing and hiking.
  • Scale of the Issue: I thought that this question could go a few different ways. In a very direct sense, it is a local issue, providing the community with a new state park and new ways to enjoy Wisconsin. But more so, it is a regional issue for what the park is going to add to the Ice Age Trail, and the people who use it. The Trail covers much more than just the local area. Lastly, of course, the park will be a state park, generally affecting the entire state.
  • Impressions: I was initially astonished that the family is planning to donate their farm to become a state park, but as I read on about the rare geographical landscapes that is has to offer, it was no longer a wonder as to why the family would do such a thing. Prior to this article, I’ve never heard of kames, and quickly looked them up to find out more. After learning a little bit more I find this donation to be a huge privilege to the state of Wisconsin. I was also unfamiliar with where all the Ice Age Trail went to. I also looked up that and found this new park to be a great addition onto an already amazing trail. I’m really looking forward to seeing this whole plan work out.

Utilizing discussion provides another avenue for learning, their classmates. Follow-up comments to postings demonstrate the benefits peer learning and social interaction that can be facilitated online.

  • “Seeing the Forest and Trees”
  • Article author: Paul A. Smith
  • October 18, 2008
  • Newspaper: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • <http://www.jsonline.com/sports/outdoors/31200444.html>;
  • Scale: Regional
  • Summary: This article incorporated a story and an article talking about some scientific information and some of the information that was presented to us in Unit 1. It was a story about grouse hunting and focused actually fairly extensively on the vegetation in the area. At this particular date, there were still some leaves on the trees, but for the most part, the leaves had dropped off the trees. The author interviewed the people on the grouse hunt and they said the majority of the vegetation consisted of oak, aspen, and maple, which is perfect Ruffed Grouse habitat, especially the aspen. The author then talked about fire, and succession, which is related to the material in Unit 1. The article stated, “Forests used to burn and allow a natural succession of plant species.” It also mentions that, “Having a mix of young-to-old forest is natural and benefits a wide range of wildlife, including many songbirds.” The story went on to talk about some of the biology of the ruffed grouse and how the overcast conditions of the day provided for good grouse hunting.
  • Impressions: This article is interesting because none of the story would have happened had it not been for the geography of the area. First and foremost is the vegetation, which is the aspen. The article mentioned the succession of the trees, and aspen is pretty much the poster child of pioneer species, being able to reproduce clonally underground. They are able to take over an area in a short period of time. This provides excellent habitat for ruffed grouse and other species. The article also mentioned the presence of oak, which means that the stand is getting away from a early successional state and more toward a more mature state. Being that the article took place in Rice lake, there are stand of oak/maple and will also be stands of coniferous trees, such as white and red pine. These are more mature trees and over the course of time, the oak trees in this person’s area will start to crowd out the aspen and there goes the ruffed grouse, at least until the next fire when the aspen will come back in. This is interesting because it shows how, like Wisconsin’s climate, forests and vegetation are not constant, they are changing, too. There is never the same vegetation for an extended period of time because of the changing climate and because of the changing environmental and in some cases human conditions. That just goes to show that things are changing and will always change, and it’s just part of how ecosystems work.

Response by another student to the above post:

  • By reading your summary I learned a lot about how the climate of an area can change in just a short period of time and can effect the vegetation and species in that area. It was interesting to read that the trees change with the climate and then the animals change with the vegetation. I never knew that the grouse in Wisconsin moved to areas with aspens and would move to a different area when larger and mature trees would start to grow. Then the fires would clear the area starting again with aspen. It is like a cycle that just keeps repeating itself. While reading the summary I thought of other species that move with the climate, like the polar bear. As our climate is changing the habitat of some species becomes smaller and the animal has to adapt in order to survive. In Wisconsin the grouse have the fires to make sure they have a habitat to live in and populate. This is also true when news roads are built and cities expand making animals have to move around.

Pause and Reflect. The Pause and Reflect assignments revolve around a particular issue or subject and give students leeway in how to address it. These are 6 page essays (not counting the reference page) and using a minimum of five references. Students are encouraged to illustrate their papers but warned (and penalized) about excessive size and number. Resources for constructing their essays can be from assigned readings or resources they find.

For Unit 1 Wisconsin’s Physical Geography, students compare the physiographic region where their home resides with another nonadjacent region. If the student is not a resident of Wisconsin, they use the physiographic region that UW-Stevens Point is located in as their “home” region. Their essay must compare and contrast:

  • the geologic environment
  • native vegetation
  • soils
  • climate characteristics

For Unit 2, Wisconsin’s Cultural Geography, students complete a geographic case study of the Hmong culture in Wisconsin. The Hmong were chosen as they have had a significant impact on the central Wisconsin region where UW-Stevens Point is located. Additionally, the ethnic make-up of UW-Stevens Point and many schools from which the students come from is predominately anglo-american. A number of online resources are suggested, but students can (and basically have to) use others to address a set of requirements for their essays. The must address:

  • Who are the Hmong?
  • Why did they immigrate to Wisconsin?
  • Where have the Hmong settled in Wisconsin ?
  • Compare their experience with that of European immigrants to Wisconsin.
  • What impact have they had on the communities in which they settled?

For Unit 3, Wisconsin’s Urban and Economic Geography, they choose an economic activity to describe. The essay is to address the following questions:

  • Where the economic activity concentrated and why?
  • Does the industry have a particular cultural heritage?
  • What percentage of the State’s population is employed in the activity and has it changed over time?
  • How does the industry/economic activity rank in comparison to other states.
  • What environmental impacts does the industry have Wisconsin’s environment?

For Unit 4, Environmental Issues Facing Wisconsin, students choose an issue and find their own resources to address it. A list of suggested topics is provided but students can find others, and usually do. Their essay must consider:

  • What is the cause and consequences of the environmental issue?
  • Where in Wisconsin is the issue a problem? Is it a local, regional, or state-wide issue?
  • What is the government (local, state, or federal) doing about the issue?
  • How does the issue affect you personally and what steps could you take to help solve the problem?

There are two semester projects that are assigned concurrently with those above, a personal field trip and community profile.

Personal Field Trip. Field trips are a valuable way for students to experience the content of geography courses. They require a special time set aside to visit sites and financial support for travel. Logistical issues can pose problems for non-traditional students who have busy family and work schedules. Wisconsin weather, especially during the spring semester when the course is taught, can be an issue as well.

Instead of a class field trip, I assign a self-guided field trip. The self-guided trip allows students to fit the trip into their personal schedule and a choice in what they wish to experience. I provide several suggestions for places to visit, from a tour of a university nature preserve (Schmeekle Reserve) to state parks, and geographically significant cultural sites. Students are required to write a three page paper, illustrated with a map and photographs of the visit. The narrative must include the geographical significance of the place they visited. A side benefit of this assignment is to introduce me to places that I have yet to visit.

Community Profile. The community profile assignment is allows the student to complete an in-depth case study of their home community including its geographic significance to Wisconsin. The community profile is a snap shot of its physical, economic and cultural features. The profile must include:

  • a description of the physical environment (significant landforms, climate characteristics, vegetation, and soils).
  • a detailed accounting of the current and past cultural heritage, including trends in cultural diversity.
  • a summary of the economic activity and employment.


The impacts on teaching and learning will continue in part 2 of the article at a later date


Meyers, C., and T.B. Jones. 1992. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College  Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


About Michael Ritter
Retired Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

One Response to Teaching the Geography of Wisconsin Online: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Dr. Maryellen Weimer: Making the Case for Learner-Centered Teaching | The Digital Professor

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