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Geographer Challenges Students to Travel the World

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What makes a corporate trainer leave Starbucks at the height of its expansion to teach at a university? For Cal State Fullerton lecturer Brian McCabe, it was his desire to help students have the same ‘light bulb’ moment he had when he first discovered the field of geography.

“Geography was the topic that really woke me up,” said McCabe, who traveled extensively during his corporate career before completing two master’s degrees at Arizona State University and Cal State Fullerton.

“Generally speaking, Americans have become disconnected from their intuitive understanding of their surroundings. They don’t really understand weather and why it happens, they don’t understand the dynamics of their region, why there are so many cultures in their cities, why these cultures form urban enclaves, how resources and industry are distributed,” he said. “These are things we don’t understand because they’re not taught so much anymore.”

McCabe is one of 28 Cal State Fullerton faculty members honored earlier this year for authorship. His latest book, “Regional Conflict and Cooperation: A Framework for Understanding Global Geography,” introduces students to the moments, events and trends that have fostered conflict or led to cooperation in world regions.

“I spend so much time thinking about global geography and teaching the material that I wanted to frame those thoughts in a way that would be useful in the classroom — not just for myself but for other teachers of survey-level global geography classes,” he said. “The point of the book is to get students thinking on their own, to give them the tools to dissect each region and to ask the right questions.”

A regional topic that has sparked dialogue among his students is the drought in California, a state with nearly 40 million people and one of the largest economies in the world.

“In California, I’d say the grizzly bear in the room is the drought and the water shortage,” said McCabe. “We have a population increase that has been very steady over the decades, yet our environment doesn’t naturally provide the water resources that we need for so many people, so much industry and so much agriculture. There is a pending conflict that is going to challenge us in more significant ways if the drought continues.”

McCabe is also passionate about engaging students in geography at an early age, a topic he explored in his first book, “Geography is Dead: How America Lost its Sense of Direction.”

“We need to get more geography in K-12 education so students arrive to college hungry for geography, as opposed to discovering it after taking a class like mine,” said McCabe, who previously served on the California Department of Education’s Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee to infuse geography into the history and social science curriculum.

He points to England as a nation with a strong understanding of the importance of geography. “The British have always maintained geography as a central part of their education system so that gives them a lot of perspective,” said McCabe. “If you read their economics magazines and how they approach issues, it’s very geographical and considerate of the global landscape.”

One way students can broaden their global understanding is to experience other regions and cultures firsthand, a practice that Cal State Fullerton widely promotes through its study abroad and study away programs.

“Especially for students, my message would be to get out there and to make travel happen,” he said. “When you travel, you pick up so many perspectives that a classroom cannot teach you.”