Laurence W. "Bill" Carstensen Jr., professor and head of the Department of Geography in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, has received the 2016 Distinguished Mentor Award from the National Council for Geographic Education.

The award honors university faculty who have been exceptional at mentoring students of geography and geography education and who have contributed to the professional development of geography teachers.

A long-time member of the Virginia Geographic Alliance, which is dedicated to supporting geographic education by facilitating partnerships between university faculty and K-12 educators, Carstensen has served on the organization’s steering committee for more than 20 years.

Carstensen cites his work developing summer field experiences for K-12 teachers as the primary reason for the award. This summer institute, organized through the Virginia Geographic Alliance, is designed to equip teachers, many of whom do not have a geography background, to teach geography in their classrooms.

In the summers of 1992 and 1993, the institute featured a three-week intensive course in map use, human geography, and physical geography. In 1998, the institute moved out of the classroom setting and allowed participants to experience the material firsthand during cross-country train excursions. Carstensen, along with Professor Emeritus Robert W. Morrill, planned and led six excursions between 1998 and 2016, with this year’s trip taking the participants from Sacramento, California, to New Orleans, Louisiana.

“This is an extremely powerful experience because teachers visited many places that they would probably not see normally,” explained Carstensen, whose goal is to help educators understand the value of geography education. “They met many people and saw their love for their places, and it opened their minds. The best mentoring comes from helping teachers to ‘be there’ and experience a place with all of their senses and emotions.”

In addition to his work in geography, Carstensen has also been instrumental in the development of a meteorology degree at Virginia Tech. The program, which is in its fourth year, is the only undergraduate-level meteorology program in Virginia. Beginning with only one instructor and one tenure-track faculty member, the program attracted more than 100 students within the first year.

The meteorology program complements Virginia Tech’s existing strength in geospatial technology by combining geographic information systems and remote sensing with traditional meteorology to examine the physics of the atmosphere. While most other programs look primarily at atmospheric patterns, geospatial technology allows students to consider both how landforms affect weather patterns and how weather patterns affect landscape features and the human environment.

Maureen Deisinger, academic advisor for the Department of Geography, admires Carstensen’s willingness to push for a meteorology program despite his background in geography, calling him “an amazing guy, open to whatever helps the students and the whole department.”

Combining his interests in geospatial technology and meteorology, Carstensen recently partnered with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology to offer researchers and students an interactive 3-D experience in the Cube, a black box theater and data exploration facility in Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center, where individuals can “walk” through a storm and see its effects on a virtual landscape.

Of the Distinguished Mentor Award, Carstensen said, “It’s so rewarding to feel as though you’re making a difference. To take a teacher who, often without prior geographic education, feels forced to teach geography and turn that person into someone who wants to teach geography is very exciting. Nothing feels better than that.”

Carstensen, who received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been a faculty member at Virginia Tech since 1983.

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