Ever since he was a kid, Jeff Lash has felt the need to get out and discover the world firsthand. Being an explorer at heart seems to have worked in his favor, because now, as an associate professor of geography at University of Houston-Clear Lake, Lash has received the second Fulbright Award of his teaching career – this time to the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.
Lash will teach courses in geography education and Geographic Information Systems to teachers in training. He and his family will depart for South Africa in January 2019 and return after one year.
“I’m the kind of person who just has to be there and see things for myself,” Lash said. “I have to get out in the world and understand things on my own. It’s also much more fun to teach this way.”
Lash, whose first Fulbright Award brought him to the University of Belgrade in Serbia in 2009-10, said that for his second application, he proposed a 10-month project in which he would teach undergraduate courses designed for pre-service geography teachers as well as introductory GIS courses for both undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Johannesburg.
He said that he felt his second Fulbright Award was the result of a combination of serendipity and good luck. “Last year, I was at a national professional geographers’ meeting and I was giving a presentation about work I’ve done helping high school geography teachers integrate digital mapping technology into their classroom,” he said. “In the audience, there was a woman from the University of Johannesburg who asked insightful questions about my work. The conversation continued after my presentation was over, and finally, she said it would be great if we could find a way to get me to help South African educators to acquire these skills.”
That’s when Lash said he applied for the award to become a visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, and was thrilled to receive it.
“The primary goal of the project is to help the University of Johannesburg build capacity in the area of teacher training in geography,” he said. “Reports indicate that many South African students exhibit a lack of geography content knowledge, struggle to produce annotated geography diagrams, have difficulty applying geographic knowledge to local conditions, and lack fundamental knowledge of GIS.”
Lash said his teaching activities would enhance pre-service geography teachers’ content knowledge, spatial thinking, problem solving and application of geospatial technology in the classroom.
“This experience at University of Johannesburg will continue my professional development,” Lash said. “I was always the kind of person who had to travel and see the world. That’s why it took me over six years just to get my undergraduate degree. I would start, then quit and move away and travel, then start again.”
During those years, Lash traveled throughout Europe and Central America in between attending college classes. “I just needed to travel,” he said. “I became certified as an English as a Second Language teacher and taught in Costa Rica. I found I liked teaching but preferred teaching about places in the world over teaching the parts of speech. I wanted to find out who teaches about things like maps and cultures and climate. I learned that geography teachers do that, and went on to get a master’s and doctorate in geography.”
Working collaboratively “is how it’s supposed to work. This is the perfect model,” he said. “UHCL’s purpose in sending me to conferences to present information is to share scholarship and ideas so that others can benefit.”
He and his colleagues at the University of Johannesburg are considering ways that their professors could benefit from coming to UHCL. “This is a great time to engage with the world and mature as an institution with international ties,” he said.
“Academic exchanges like this present great opportunities, and one of my goals while I’m there is to explore these options. How could UHCL become a collaborative partner with them? We could all be beneficiaries of my Fulbright experience and produce a better outcome if students and the university at large can benefit.”
For more information about UHCL’s Geography program, visit www.uhcl.edu/human-sciences-humanities/departments/social-cultural-sciences/geography.