Psychologists who study mood have found that your sense of control over external events plays a big role in determining your mood. I believe this explains why so few people choose to get involved in education.

In a set of classic psychological studies, researchers observed that feeling unable to control events is associated with a depressed mood. How does this apply to education? When most of us look at the shortcomings of our educational system, we feel little power to influence events. We do not feel that we can make a difference. That’s depressing, so we tend to turn away and devote our energies to something where we can feel what psychologists call internal locus of control.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are many things that we can do to improve education, particularly if we focus on the areas where we can make a difference.

For the GIS community, the place where we can make a difference is in the area that I call geo-literacy, the slice across the science and social studies curriculum that depends critically on geographic analysis. Together with Esri and other organizations, National Geographic is creating opportunities for geographic professionals to make a difference in education and experience an internal locus of control.

At the 2009 Esri International User Conference in San Diego, California, Jack Dangermond, president of Esri, introduced the new GeoMentor program. This program helps GIS professionals find a classroom where they can make a difference in geo-literacy. It operates as a Web-based match-making service between GIS professionals and teachers. It also provides a structure to help two professionals who work in very different spheres collaborate successfully.

The idea behind the GeoMentor program is to eliminate the obstacles to volunteering in a school that undermine an internal locus of control. Without the GeoMentor program, a well-meaning GIS professional would likely become mired in thoughts like, I don’t know how to find a school to work with. Would a teacher want my help? What could I even do?

The response to the GeoMentor program at the User Conference was overwhelming. More than 850 attendees came by to talk to the National Geographic Education staff at the booth in the Map Gallery. More than 200 attended one of our workshops on how to be a GeoMentor.

If you think you might be interested in working with a K-12 teacher to bring more geo-literacy learning into his or her classroom, you should visit the GeoMentor Web site. There you will find instructions on how to find and work with a teacher in your area (or elsewhere, if you and the teacher are comfortable with online collaboration). You will also find specific ideas for how you can work together, ranging from helping the teacher obtain resources for geo-literacy instruction to coming to the classroom to help teachers implement lessons that involve mapping or GIS.

Everything that a GIS professional and teacher need to establish a successful geomentoring relationship is available on the GeoMentor site.

Volunteering in schools is not for everyone, though. So we’ve created another way for GIS professionals to make a difference in education with an even lower barrier to participation.

The National Geographic Society recently created the Fund for Geo-Literacy to enable concerned individuals to contribute money to our efforts to improve geo-literacy education. The fund supports the GeoMentor program and other geo-literacy programs for teachers and students.

If you are not able to volunteer your time right now (or even if you are), you can make a difference in geo-literacy education with a contribution to the Fund for Geo-Literacy. Contributions are used to create and distribute free classroom materials and to support professional development programs for teachers.

A gift of $25 is enough to cover the cost of providing teacher guides and maps to five teachers participating in the GeoMentor program. A gift of $100 can cover the cost of one day for a teacher from anywhere in the country to participate in a five-day workshop at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Our goal in establishing the fund is to give people who understand the importance of geo-literacy an opportunity to include support for geo-literacy in their annual charitable giving. These donations are important. As the National Geographic Society is a nonprofit organization, external grants and gifts are necessary to support our geo-literacy reform initiatives.

Between these options for volunteering and giving, National Geographic and Esri are trying to increase opportunities for the community of GIS professionals to develop an internal locus of control when it comes to education. We want you to experience the feeling of having an impact. Working in our favor is the fact that locus of control is subject to positive feedback. A positive experience increases one’s sense of control, which, in turn, motivates more effort. So, whether volunteering or donating is the appropriate place to start for you, I urge you to choose one. You can make a difference.

Making a Difference in Geo-Literacy

Daniel C. Edelson, Ph.D.

Executive Director of the Education Foundation and Vice President of Education Programs, National Geographic Society

What is Geo-Literacy?
Read more about what it means to be geo-literate, and follow the geo-literacy movement in social media: Twitter, ArcNews, and Facebook.


any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.


study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.


the understanding of human and natural systems, geographic reasoning, and systematic decision-making.

National Geographic Society

(1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."


This article first appeared in the "GeoLearning" column in ArcNews, a news magazine published for the Esri user community and for others interested in mapping and geographic information system (GIS) technology.