Google Earth engineer’s love of geography started in Lawrence

May 23, 2010


Do you know which country is bordered by Malawi and Rwanda, or which country in the Americas is second to the United States in meat production? These are the kind of questions that Stefan Petrovic from Lawrence can answer in seconds. He’s a finalist in this year’s National Geographic Bee. He will be competing with 53 other geography-minded young people this week in Washington, D.C.

As the world grows more connected, so grows the importance of understanding our place within it. Yet, according to a 2006 National Geographic study, half of young Americans are unable to locate New York state on a map, and 74 percent incorrectly identify English as the most commonly spoken native language in the world. These are the statistics we must work together to change by fostering a love of geography in all our children.

My lifelong passion for geography began with a workbook in second grade (right there in Lawrence, at Hillcrest Elementary) — and I still have it. It showed maps side-by-side with aerial images of the same location. Page after page, I learned that geography is not just about a map; it’s about the information that gives a map real meaning.

Several years into my career as a computer software engineer, I joined a startup with an amazing group of people. We set out to make a new kind of map, a 3D map built with cutting-edge graphic technology that would make it possible to explore the world from your computer. We were excited about the possibilities but didn’t know how widely our tool would be used.

Just a few months after Google acquired our startup and our tool was renamed Google Earth, Hurricane Katrina hit. We were able to make updated images of the flooding quickly available to rescue workers and media outlets. Until that time, I thought of Google Earth as a new way to see the world, but then it became clear that it also had the power to change the world — and even save lives.

Google Earth has now been installed on more than 700 million computers and smart phones.

It is used for everything from house hunting and vacation planning, to scientific research and disaster response. Most importantly, it is used every day by students and teachers to explore the earth, the ocean, the moon, Mars and the solar system.

As parents and educators, we try to instill a love of learning and exploration in our children. With technology, we have the power to make their education as engaging as their entertainment. Teachers across the country are using online maps to augment lessons in not just geography, but literature, physics and history.

We can also bring geographic awareness into our children’s lives at home. By joining them at the computer, we can teach them about the place where their grandparents were born. We can plan a bike ride or a camping trip. The 5 o’clock news can become an opportunity to learn about Iceland, Afghanistan and Haiti and show them that the world is more connected than they might realize.

We may never see all of these places in person, but we can travel there virtually. I hope that online maps can be for today’s children what that geographic workbook was for me: a source of lifelong inspiration.

Congratulations to Stefan and all the finalists in this year’s National Geographic Bee!

— Brian McClendon is vice president of engineering for Google Geo and a native of Lawrence. He is a 1982 graduate of Lawrence High School and received his engineering degree from Kansas University in 1986. The answers to the questions posed in his first paragraph are Tanzania and Brazil.


Alison Carter 7 years, 8 months ago

Excellent commentary, Brian. Thanks for all of your good work. Kudos to your Hillcrest elementary school teacher. And, congratulations and good luck with your geography knowledge, Stefan Petrovic !

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