History of the Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences Department

Geography is one of the original subjects taught when the State Board of Education created Northern State Normal School on July 14, 1899. The first geography courses were basic and were taught by Martha B. Ackermann. The program included physical geography, meteorology, and a general course for teachers of geography. Drawing courses that included cartography were also offered. In 1903, general geography (human geography) replaced the course for teachers and commercial geography supplanted physical geography and meteorology.

The Geography Department was officially created in 1905, with Frances Martin Kelsey as its head. One early departmental change included the increase in the availability of text materials. Such materials reduced the department’s emphasis on the maps, models, laboratories, and field trips that were used to teach geography early in the century. New offerings included courses in geology and continental geography.

Most graduates of the department in the first half of the 20th century became teachers, but jobs for geographers in government and industry increased in the second half of the century.

The department’s course offerings in conservation in the 1960s attracted some of the transient, environmentally attuned members of the nation’s burgeoning counterculture known as “the backpackers.” They would attend Northern for one or two semesters, and then move to another college town. At one point in the mid 1960s, more than 600 NMU students were majoring in geography.

By the early 1970s, the Geography Department had 11 full-time and two part-time professors. Courses were often revised to meet the specific needs of employers. Diverse course offerings included recreation planning, bio-physical systems, and environmental studies.

As the department grew and expanded, its name did as well. In 1960, the Department of Conservation and Agriculture became a part of the Geography Department. In March 1963, agriculture was discontinued as a part of geography. The name of the Geography Department was changed to the Department of Geography, Earth Sciences, Conservation and Planning, effective July 1, 1986. In 1998 the name reverted to the Geography Department.

By the mid-1990s, the department was committed to offering programs in applied geography, teacher education, and preparatory work for graduate study. The department was also committed to offering quality courses that satisfied NMU’s liberal studies requirements in the areas of social science, natural science/mathematics, and world culture. Liberal arts majors in the department were land-use planning and management, conservation, geography, and earth science. These majors prepared students for a variety of careers and professions ranging from government service to private industry to research.

In 2011, the renamed Earth, Environmental, and Geographical Sciences Department launched a revised curriculum.  The four new majors are environmental studies and sustainability, environmental science, earth science, and geomatics. True to the roots of the institution, students can still prepare for a career in teaching. The secondary education majors prepare students to teach geography and earth science.

The department’s laboratory for computer mapping is state-of-the-art. Students use Global Position Systems (GPS) for classes and projects to locate and map campus buildings, roadways, and physical features of the environment. Students can learn to integrate spatial data from multiple sources using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to create maps that help answer a wide range of questions with applications for management, conservation, planning, and historical reconstruction.

Department chairs and heads: Frances Martin Kelsey, 1905-1906; Charles H. Estrich, 1906-1909; Ward Magoon Mills, 1909-1910; Theodosia Hamilton Hadley, 1909-1911; DeForest Stull, 1909-1923; J. Russel Whitaker, 1924-1930; Lynn Halverson, 1930-1962; Henry Heimonen, 1962-1972; John Hughes, 1972-1978; Jarl Roine, 1978-1988; Alfred Joyal, 1989-1992; J. Pat Farrell, 1992-1997; Alfred Joyal (acting), 1997; Michael Broadway, 1997-2008; John B. Anderton, 2008-11; Susy S. Ziegler, 2011-present.

Source: A Sense of Time: The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University.