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Retiring Professor Made Geography More Than Maps, Places

August 03, 2020

For more than 30 years, Professor Diane O’Connell has made geography come alive for her students. 

Wait, how can anyone make geography come alive? Cities, states, countries, continents – that’s geography, right?

Actually, geography is much more than learning the names and locations of places around the globe.

“The study of geography helps people to understand the world,” said O’Connell, who recently retired after a distinguished career teaching geography and environmental sciences. “I tell my students that geography is a field science – we analyze the world as it is to try to solve geographic problems.

“That means any issue or topic that has a spatial dimension, such as transportation and infrastructure, water quality or quantity, urban development and sustainable development.”

O’Connell began at Schoolcraft College as a part-time instructor in the late 1980s and has been full-time since 1990. Taking geology classes as an undergraduate sparked her interest in geosciences, which then led to some trips west.

From there, O’Connell became concerned with environmental issues, particularly groundwater quality, which led to an interest in geography.

“The Geography Department has had a long relationship with Friends of the Rouge, and I encourage my students to be citizen volunteers to collect water quality data for that organization,” she said. “We have sampled the stream located on the campus three times a year since 2003. With the technological improvements in mobile data collection and mapping using smartphones, it’s an exciting time to study geography.”

O’Connell plans to spend part of her retirement traveling, volunteering and staying involved, especially with respect to groundwater.

“To understand groundwater contamination, for example, it is important to study hydrogeology to view the distribution of groundwater and understand groundwater migration patterns,” she said. “An understanding of the physical dimensions of the resource can be used to inform public policy. I apply these research techniques to current case studies regarding water quality.”