Mary Arizona "Zonia" Baber (August 24, 1862 – January 10, 1956), was an American geographer and geologist best known for developing methods for teaching geography. Her teachings emphasized experiential learning through fieldwork and experimentation.
As Baber's hometown did not offer education beyond elementary school, she moved 130 miles to Paris, Illinois to attend high school where she lived with her uncle. After high school, she attended "Normal school" to train as a teacher.
Baber started her career as a private school principal from 1886 to 1888. She then took a job teaching at Cook County Normal School (now Chicago State University), where she served as the head of the Geography Department from 1890 to 1899. She taught the interdependence of structural geography, history, and the natural sciences. These courses focused on primarily geography, continental study, meteorology, and mathematical geography. While teaching, Baber also took classes in geology, including the first class that accepted women. She earned her Bachelor of Science in 1904.
From 1901 to 1921 Baber worked as an associate professor and head of geography and geology in the Department of Education at the University of Chicago. At the same time, she was the principal of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
When it came to teaching, Baber preferred to focus on fieldwork—enabling her students to act and discover rather than memorize facts. Baber's teaching methods are still used today.
The student discovers too late that ordinary unrelated knowledge is not power; that only scientific knowledge—unified, related experiences—are valuable.
Baber promoted field trips and first-hand experience rather than the memorization of facts and definitions, but she also worked to improve conventional learning aids. During her time as chairwoman of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), she created a committee to scrutinize textbooks in order to replace antiquated or inappropriate phrases and concepts with ones intended to stop the perpetuation of negative prejudices.
In 1920, Baber published "A Proposal for Renaming the Solar Circles in the Journal of Geography". The north and south solar tropics are traditionally referred to as the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, Baber proposed the name be changed to The Northern Tropic and The Southern Tropic. Today both terms are accepted in the world of geography, though no official change was made. In 1898 Baber co-founded the Geographic Society of Chicago. She served as the President and was involved with the Society for 50 years. In 1948 she received a lifetime achievement award.
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