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23 Days, 15 States, 7,000 Miles and 1 Airplane: An Independent Study

Longwood student flies cross-country for a study on the physical and cultural geography of the United States

David KeranCultural geography interested Longwood junior David Keran from his first week on campus. As part of orientation for the Cormier Honors College, Keran participated in a project engaging students in how geography influences culture - and vice-versa - in Farmville, Va. He took that idea to the next level the following year with an Independent Study project: traveling across the United States to observe and analyze our nation's diverse physical and cultural landforms.

"The Cormier Honors College uses the concept of ‘place as text' - using a location as opposed to a textbook," Keran said. "In other words, instead of reading about the geography of a place, go there, walk around, see it, experience it. That's really the essence of how this project came to be. Your classroom is the environment you're studying."

Initially, Keran proposed driving Route 50, a less famous counterpart of Route 66. After an anonymous sponsor offered him the use of a Cessna 172, a light aircraft nicknamed "Tweetybird," things got interesting. For Keran, flying is a family affair; his mother and both of his grandfathers were pilots, and his father flies as well. He has 10 years of flying experience himself and was formally licensed three years ago. He was well equipped to take his journey to the skies, with an adjusted emphasis on studying the physical landforms he could observe from the air.

Keran was empowered to undertake his study with funding from the Cormier Honors College and the support of Longwood faculty members Dr. Ed Kinman, Dr. Alix Fink and Dr. Geoffrey Orth. However, he traveled with a crew of one: himself. Keran flew a circle route around the country, beginning in the South: Alabama, central Texas, along the border in Arizona and New Mexico, and ending up in California. After repositioning for his flight across the Rockies, he started his northern track, stopping in West Yellowstone in Montana, on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin and around the Chicago area, then heading back to Northern Virginia.

Swan Valley, ID"David gets a spark in his eye when he makes observations about the world around him. He has a great love for learning. Combine that with his passion for flying, and you have this remarkable project," said Dr. Kinman, associate professor of geography and Keran's independent study advisor. "When you get above and start looking down at the world, you're able to make connections and identify patterns you wouldn't otherwise see. David developed an understanding not only of the varying physical landscape - mountains, valleys, plains - but the cultural landscape, or the things that humans have altered - such as contrasting land-survey patterns that have influenced the way cities are organized, as well as agricultural fields."

At the end of each day, Keran recorded his observations in the trip journal and downloaded photos and video footage. He identified and documented examples of the physical and cultural landforms he had studied in class and the insights. At the conclusion of his trip, Keran produced a 34-minute video, photo book and 120-page journal with written narratives and souvenirs to share his findings.

"What really makes me happy from an educator's perspective is the breadth of academic disciplines this project crossed. David brought in skills from so many different areas of study: geography, history, physics, English. This type of experience truly brings to life the value of a liberal arts education," said Dr. Kinman.

Keran highlighted three geographic observations that helped him synthesize his classroom and real-life experiences:

  • Windmills. These were especially prevalent in the Southwest, as well as southern Idaho, eastern Ohio and West Virginia. Windmills mark an area of steady wind - either from flat areas with nothing to stop wind currents (such as in the desert) or mountain thermals and currents (Idaho, West Virginia, Ohio). They also may indicate the political geography of the area, in terms of green energy and anti-pollution laws.
  • Systems of Irrigation. In the Southwest, circular agricultural fields stood out clearly in the desert, formed by "pivot irrigation." On the other hand, irrigated fields in California's San Joaquin Valley were rectangular, with aqueducts along the edges. The prevalence of irrigation systems emphasized the importance of utilizing water to its maximum potential in these areas.
  • Plant Succession. In this phenomenon, aquatic vegetation slowly overtakes a lake or pond, solidifies into peat and eventually replaces the pond. Several examples were found in central South Dakota. Keran was particularly impressed to see such clear demonstrations of plant succession, as he had read about it in a textbook before starting out.

In total, Keran spent 23 days traveling, including a two-week stint with the Civil Air Patrol in Alabama. He racked up impressive numbers over the course of his trip, flying 7,000 miles in 66 hours in the air. He flew over 22 states and landed in 15 for refueling and overnight stays. He crossed the Continental Divide four times.

Keran's experience complemented and reinforced his current studies as well as his planned career path. "In the near future, I'd like to get involved with the National Parks Service as park law enforcement. I've always been interested in the spaces that have been carved out as the highlights of our country. It would combine a little of everything - law enforcement, aviation, our national parks. For me, it's the best of all worlds!"