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CCSU Professors

Peter KyemPeter Kyem
Maps Are Power

Thousands of students each year compete in the National Geographic Bee and puzzle over such stumpers as: “Peshawar, a city in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, has had strategic importance for centuries because of its location near what historic pass?”

Is this what geography is all about? When Dr. Peter Kyem, associate professor of geography, asked a First Year Experience class, “Why study geography?” a student quipped, “So I won’t buy an Amtrak ticket to Honolulu.” Many students at first are unfamiliar with geography as a multifaceted discipline, “a holistic approach and integrated method of study,” as Kyem sees it, that bridges social sciences, humanities, and physical sciences. 

Igniting Students’ Interest in the “Why of Where”

In time Kyem’s students come away—whether taking his courses in map reading, aerial photo interpretation, physical geography, soils and vegetation, natural resources management, issues in environmental protection, or regional geography of sub-Saharan Africa—with a deeper understanding of the physical and cultural world. Evaluations consistently describe Kyem’s classes as “fun” and “comfortable.” The Distance Decay exercise, for example, engages first year students by having them consider the theory that prices for real estate—and the relationship between individuals—falls off the further away one moves from the center of activity. Kyem says, “We tested the idea that boy and girl friends who live further away from campus are more likely to break up. It’s a decay of bonding. Students learn how distance from the center of activity impacts value (as in real estate often) as well as relationships. By mapping according to distance from campus, they also gain cartography skills. And they can gain experience with Geographic Information Systems.”

Quickly, students become aware that what differentiates geography from other disciplines is its focus on spatial patterns and processes. Geographers look to the landscape for evidence of natural or cultural forces at work—the “why of where.” Therefore, “Maps are power,” declares Kyem, who is a specialist in GIS, which combines computer-assisted mapping with database management.

In keeping with what Geography Department Chair Brian Sommers calls “instructing geography students in applying their science to solve real-world problems,” Kyem has his students put GIS into action. As a class project he sets up a “practical” task—for example, studying the garbage disposal system in New Britain. But he is mindful in tapping each student’s strengths. “We define an objective,” he explains, “and by group participation students share tasks and are responsible according to their abilities, whether in writing or oral presentations or mapping. This brings out their best.” A key to his teaching philosophy, he says, is a belief that “every student is unique, different in many ways. My experience with students from different backgrounds, cultures, and age groups has taught me that every student has some need a teacher must necessarily fulfill to keep him or her wanting to learn.”

From Ghana to CCSU

Kyem’s views on teaching and learning have been shaped by a personal experience complete with adversity and triumph. Born in Bibiani, in the western region of Ghana, West Africa, he was orphaned by age 11 and recalls with fervor, “I survived because community members reached out. The extended family is the way culture operates in Ghana. There were several ‘parents.’ Having grown up in a community where everyone was the brother’s keeper, I have firsthand experience of living in an environment where community spirit contributes to everyone’s benefit. I try to instill a similar sense of community in my students by assigning group projects where students help each other learn.” Tara Joiner in a thank-you note wrote, “I never had a teacher so concerned about my productivity. You urged me to do my best, because you believed I could.”

Kyem’s gentle nurturing is balanced with a comprehensive mastery of geography. Graduate student Kate Moran comments, “He draws on his life experience in Ghana and world travels to illustrate the multiple and often polarized perspectives of culture, politics, and economics that shape our world. Students learn about the various forms of land ownership that exist in different societies. The real lesson is that each form grows out of the philosophical beliefs of the society, which are shaped by human nature and the prevailing mix of natural resources, politics, and cultural circumstances.”

Scholarship in Front Ranks of Participatory GIS

The knowledge Kyem infuses into his classes is invigorated by his scholarship, especially in Participatory GIS (PGIS) applications and research. “Peter’s work is a good example of what geography is. He is looking at the distribution of resources and how those resources can be best allocated through the use of GIS technology,” says Sommers. At the forefront of this new GIS application, Kyem has just published an article in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers—a flagship journal—on the use of GIS to manage a conflict over natural resources allocation in a rural community in southern Ghana. “It’s a first for our department,” boasts Sommers, “and places Peter as a top researcher in his field.” Larry Becker of the Geosciences Department, Oregon State University, notes, “The article is an important starting point for graduate students learning about GIS applications in Africa and other areas where groups with power and underprivileged groups encounter each other, and GIS is used as a tool in land use/resource access disputes.” This summer Kyem was invited to expound on his theories about community empowerment through PGIS applications at a conference on GIS for developing countries held in Malaysia.

Kyem’s publications coincide with a major change in CCSU’s Geography Department—to revise the GIS program, Sommers says, “so our students will be capable of competing for jobs, using the latest technology in computer mapping, 3D modeling, and spatial analysis.” An outspoken, fresh voice in the complex area of PGIS, Kyem is exploring NSF grants to fund future research. Three years ago and again this summer, in conjunction with Professor of Psychology Charles Mate-Kole and the Center for International Education, he was co-investigator on a $60,000 U.S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays grant for a field school in African Studies in Ghana. As he ventures out into new intellectual frontiers, Kyem will continue to open up new vistas in the classroom, challenging students to study the earth and its features and to contemplate the amazing panorama of human activity.

-- Geri Radacsi

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