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‘Modern Geography Is a High-Tech Area of Science and Practice’

In cooperation with the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), HSE University will now offer a bachelor’s degree in Geography of Global Transformation and Geoinformation Technology. Olga Solomina, the new undergraduate programme’s Academic Supervisor, and Nikolay Kurichev, Dean of the Faculty of Geography and Geoinformation Technology, discuss the programme’s curriculum and the exciting opportunities that await new students.

How modern geography is different from the geography you study in grade school

Olga Solomina

The everyday conception of geography that is taught in school is completely wrong. Geography is not about memorizing countries or flipping through atlases about nature and minerals. Modern geography is not an enumeration of facts. It explores the spatial organizational patterns of natural and social systems.

First of all, geographical science, using complex mathematical models, studies global climate and environmental changes, the influence of natural and anthropogenic factors on them, and the ways in which ecosystems adapt to these changes. Research in the field of earth sciences in recent decades has significantly advanced thanks to the development of geophysical, geochemical, and biological methods.

The second key area of ​​modern geography is the spatial organization of society. Why do some regions, cities, and communities develop more successfully than others and are more attractive to people? What determines shifts in the distribution of services, industry, and agriculture?

Olga Solomina at expedition

Modern geography is a high-tech area of science and practice. Geodata is collected via active satellite imagery—which is approaching real-time mode—as well as the parsing of open big data and content analysis. Geographers use high-tech methods of data processing, such as machine learning, pattern recognition methods, and neural networks. A large number of services rely on geoinformation technologies – from geolocation on mobile devices, search engines, and social networks to complex management systems in corporations and government bodies.

The main features of the new bachelor's programme

Olga Solomina

Our programme, which is co-organized by HSE and the Institute of Geography of the Russia Academy of Sciences (RAS), seeks to launch a new format of university-level geography studies in Russia. Our students will gain the experience and skills necessary to conduct high-level research and work in applied areas of the field that involve spatial data, geomarketing, environmental management, and more.

The programme offers three broad tracks (or areas of specialization) that each encompasses a combination of different geographical disciplines. This enables us to focus on modern theoretical approaches and the newest methods of fundamental and applied geographical research.

Students will gain experience with environmental research, engineering, and spatial analysis and planning

Students will work with professionals who work in these fields – not only in the classroom, but on project or internship work. Programme faculty members are also active researchers who publish in international journals and manage research projects in which students can also participate and gain research experience.

From the first year of study, part of students’ classes will be taught at HSE at the Faculty of Geography and Geoinformation Technology, and part will be taught at the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences. After their first year, students will gradually be included in the work of laboratories with the support of academic supervisors. Students will have access to laboratory equipment and a unique array of data, including an aerospace image archive, a scientific archive, and the library of the institute.

In addition, we are developing a network of partners that includes research centres, non-profit organizations, and businesses. Our goal is not only to provide students a quality education (which is valuable in itself), but to produce graduates that are in high demand in specific sectors of the labour market. Graduates of our programme will have a clear sense of the professional opportunities that are out there and their career paths.

Areas of specialization

Nikolay Kurichev

Our bachelor's programme offers three tracks for in-depth specialization: ‘Geoinformation Technology and Spatial Modelling’, ‘Global Climate Change and the Environment’, ‘Human Geography and Spatial Solutions’. At first glance, it may seem these tracks seem loosely connected, but in reality, they are quite different.

A fundamental feature of geographical science is that it sits at the intersection of the natural and social sciences as well as (geo)information technology. Any specific problem involves both natural and social factors. Under the conditions of the Anthropocene, or the ‘human era’, there are almost no ecosystems left on our planet that remain unchanged by human activity.

Glacier works. Altai
Photo by Ivan Lavrentiev, RAS Institute of Geography

Our faculty is comprised of two wings: human geography and physical geography. These wings are connected by shared environmental problems and the main method for conducting research and solving applied problems—geoinformation technology. And geoinformatics today involves big data, pattern recognition, machine learning, and other advanced elements of digitalization. In light of the problems the modern world faces today, all three areas are necessary for a full-fledged geographical education.

We specifically made our programme tracks wide-ranging instead of breaking them up into a higher number of more specific geographic areas

The nature of most problems in the complex world in which we live requires specialists with broad basic training. A modern bachelor’s degree is not a narrow specialization but the formation of a general, informed professional world view—in our case, a geographical one.

In the first and second years of the programme, students will gain a basic knowledge in all three areas. In their junior and senior years, students will take courses that cut across all three tracks, and they will be encouraged to conduct research and work on applied projects that involve all of them.

Curriculum

Nikolay Kurichev

The structure of the programme is shaped by our main task – to combine basic general geographic training and the opportunity for students to plunge into their chosen area of specialization.

The core of our programme consists of three components.

The first component focuses on geoinformation technology. This is an essential geographical method, so all of our students will learn how to work with spatial data – this means both learning the fundamental principles as well as the necessary basic applied skills. They will learn how to integrate data from different sources, work with databases, programme in Python and R, and use the basic tools of geoanalytics.

The second component consists of a series of courses on the basics of physical geography and global environmental changes. Students will gain a firm grasp on the modern advances in climatology, geoecology, paleogeography, and other geography-related areas in the natural sciences that study the key problems that result from human-environmental interaction. Courses will particularly focus on practical skills in addition to mathematical, geophysical, and geochemical research methods.

The third component covers the basics of human geography. In this series, the key problems of world development – environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural – are considered through a geographic lens. This is a distinct view of the world that is necessary for the development of a country’s regional policy or an individual business’s strategy, and this valuable skill is something that future geographers should be taught.

One of the key advantages of our programme is the flexibility students have in shaping their educational trajectory

After the second year of study, students can participate in field work in one of the three tracks. This allows students to get a feel for their chosen area and make sure they want to pursue it further before officially choosing their track after the second year.

Even in their first year, students are able to take elective courses, and in their fourth year, about half of a student’s course load consists of elective courses of their own choosing. Finally, the university-wide system of minors from other HSE faculties makes it possible to choose a second specialty in addition to taking courses in one’s primary area.

Courses

Nikolay Kurichev

In our courses, we employ a wide range of teaching approaches to engage students in course material, such as business games, project presentations, and interactive discussion. On this basis of intensive in-class activity, students undertake projects and independent research – this is an integral part of studies at HSE. Our curriculum also includes an undergraduate thesis as well as the necessary steps that come before it: a research seminar, term papers, and project work.

While working in HSE labs and partner companies, students will design projects that centre on real tasks. Students will design and propose projects on their own initiative. Each student will gain basic practical skills: they will learn how to create ready-made geoinformation products, how to prepare analytical materials and the economic feasibility of projects, and how to analyse the regulatory framework on a selected problem.

A research seminar is a kind of master class where professional researchers (primarily from the RAS Institute of Geography, but from other institutions as well) share their personal experience in conducting research and working as professional scientists. With these examples, students learn how to conduct rigorous research – from conceiving the general concept to selecting data and tools to presenting the results.

The research seminar is especially important for those who want to work as professional geographers. These students will probably continue on to Master’s and/or PhD programmes. From the first years of study, students will be able to work on research projects at the RAS Institute of Geography and academic partner organizations. Projects may involve, for example, studying glacial cores, bird flights, exploring border problems, or population migration in different countries and regions.

Where and how to conduct field work

Nikolay Kurichev

Field research and expeditions are a necessary part of a geographer’s education. If traveling is your passion, then enrolling in our programme and becoming a geographer is the perfect choice for you: this is an opportunity to combine your passion with your career.

After the first year, students will complete internships at the Kursk Biosphere Station of the RAS Institute of Geography. Field practice not only allows students to gain basic professional skills, but also invaluable experience working in a team and making friends.

Nothing creates a team like working on an expedition

After the second year, students will be able to choose one of three options for further internship work, depending on their specialization. We are already negotiating partnerships with the Caucasian Reserve, the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and others, so that our students can have a wide range of professional development options.

In their third and fourth years, students will have the opportunity to complete internship work in the industry or on a project related to their thesis project at research organizations (for those interested in pursuing academic careers) or in partner companies of the faculty (for those interested in careers in applied fields). Field expeditions conducted by the RAS Institute of Geography that are open to students are conducted in a wide range of locations: from Svalbard to Kamchatka, and from the Alps to Antarctica. Our students can also participate in academic mobility programmes offered by HSE and its partner universities.

Prospective Careers

Nikolay Kurichev

After graduation, students will have two options: to continue their studies and become a researcher or an academic, or to apply their expertise in an applied field. This latter option may include starting one’s own business, working in the corporate sector, or working in public service. Our programme gives students the freedom to choose either of these options.

Preparing a new generation of geographers in Russia is one of the key goals of our faculty. We focus on training researchers who are able to conduct world-class scientific research, publish in the best international peer-reviewed journals, and collaborate with leading foreign universities.

If you choose this path, you can become a geographer - an explorer not of new lands, but of new patterns

Nevertheless, it is graduate programmes, rather than undergraduate programmes, that really prepare students for careers in research or academia. And by the time our first undergraduate cohort graduates, our faculty will offer a master’s programme in this field. In addition to preparing students for graduate-level studies in our own faculty, our bachelor’s programme prepares students for graduate studies at leading universities abroad as well as master’s programmes in related fields here at HSE.

We understand that most of our graduates will go not into academic studies, but into business and public administration, and they must have the appropriate skills for this. Students will gain these skills in our programme and will be able to apply them in professional activities.

The volume of spatial data over the past 10 years has grown exponentially and continues to grow rapidly. Based on this data, geoinformation systems (GIS) and other services are being developed, and geoanalytics has become an integral part of various types of business. Graduates of our programme will be well suited for careers as GIS analysts (Spatial Data Scientists), GIS application developers, specialists in spatial data visualization and geo-infographics, and satellite imagery experts, to name just a few.

Another applied area is the spatial-industry and regional research. This kind of research includes location solutions (where should the enterprise or point of sale be located?), logistics (how to optimize the transport of raw materials, components, and finished products?), geo-marketing (where is it more profitable to sell goods and services, which ones, when, and at what price?). Graduates could pursue careers in investment analysis at an industrial company, retail and development, location solution consultation, and regional policy.

Students can also pursue careers in environmental fields, including those related to natural resource management. ‘Green’ issues are not just political talking points – they are huge and rapidly growing industries: carbon markets, markets for energy-efficient equipment, environmentally friendly materials and technology, and so on.

We are witnessing the formation of a whole sphere of the economy – with new goods and services, and new professions

Without an environmental impact assessment, no investment project can be implemented. No large company operating in international markets can get by without environmental law specialists.

The list of environment-related professions is growing and becoming more and more in demand in both Russia and the world. These kinds of professions include risk managers in natural risk management, specialists in water and forest resources management, consultants in the sustainable development of territories, and experts in environmental law or environmental audit. In addition, our students will gain skills in conducting and organizing various types of engineering surveys during design and construction.

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