When Jason Armstrong Baker looks at a map of the world, he doesn't see things in geo-political terms. He sees maps geo-musically.
Baker, 38, is a 1993 graduate of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, and is the creator of a new program called Sounds Around the World that uses music to teach students geography.
"I'm a map guy. I've always loved maps and globes and I just thought there had to be some way to solve this," said Baker, now of Halethorpe in Baltimore County.
"This" is what Baker calls "abysmal" test scores in geography. In 2010, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about one-quarter of students across the country were proficient in geography. Baker saw this first-hand when, while a music therapist at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital's Adolescent Crisis Stabilization Units in Towson, he overheard young clients say off-handedly that California is south of Baltimore.
"I thought it was completely ridiculous," Baker said. "It made me want to cry."
On his next break, Baker printed out some black-and-white maps and pulled some music from his computer. At the next session, he introduced the first version of what would eventually become Sounds Around the World.
At its basic level, the program is a music and geography game. Baker played some music — mariachi, for example — and the students would try to figure out where on the map the music originated.
The game has gotten bigger and better since then and Baker has given demonstrations across the region, including Wilde Lake High School and the Homewood Center in the Howard County Public School System. Now, Sounds Around the World is available for teachers to purchase online, and Baker will be presenting the game at the National Council for Geography Education in Denver this month, and at the National Council for the Social Studies in St. Louis in November.
While the game starts out with recognizable music from continents like Europe and Asia, it progresses into more regional-specific music from Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Eventually the music becomes country-specific, Baker said, like "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the United States.
"I'm playing music they don't really know, but kids like to explore so it's exciting for them," Baker said. "They get to take chances and risks with the learning. Kids develop associations with the music they already know, so when they hear new music for the first time they're utilizing the part of the brain that's more about imagination and association."
The data is still out on whether the game will improve grades, Baker said, but after surveying students and teachers at the schools he's demonstrated and piloted the game, he said self-confidence in relationship to geography went up 32.8 percent and ability to identify countries increased 15 percent.
In a world where maps are at everyone's fingertips thanks to smart phones, Baker said the first challenge is to get people interested in looking something up in the first place.
"Are they even interested enough to know where the news is happening, places like Egypt and Syria?" he said. "It's about getting them to know where they are, and where something else is. Our kids really need to know other cultures, other places."
Baker has piloted the game at schools in Carroll County, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, as well as the two schools in Howard County. In reaching out to Wilde Lake last year, Baker was reaching out to his old teacher, Herb West, who got excited about the program and wanted to see it first-hand.
"It's great," said West, social studies instructional leader at Wilde Lake. "The kids are into music, but not geography. The kids in our country wind up being lost. The game is good because Jason can take country music and point to the west and south regions of the U.S., or hip-hop from the northeast."
In Howard County high schools, West said, geography is only taught as an elective, and is usually incorporated into other classes. That's how Baker remembers it — the only geography he was taught in high school was in other social studies classes.
"It's a lost discipline," West said. "What (Baker) is doing is a good way to bring geography back into the classroom and empower the students."