Matthew McCourt
Associate Professor of Geography

Ph.D., University of Kentucky
M.A., University of Kentucky
B.A., University of Massachusetts

In his courses, Associate Professor of Geography Matthew McCourt strives to show his students the real-world applications of theoretical concepts.

McCourt examines the interconnections between a broad range of issues and concepts: from Planning and Regulation issues (environmental issues and regulations, environmental law, land use, town and regional planning, etc.); to Geospatial Information Technologies (geostatistics, giscience, geospatial information, etc.); and more.

He has found this helps students to truly connect the sophisticated, in-the-classroom discussions to issues and solutions to problems that occur out in the real world.

Seeking Solutions to Oil Dependence

Recently, two of Matt’s classes — a Land Use class and a Geographic Information Science (GIS) class — collaborated on a high-end mapping project partially funded through the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

The larger EPSCoR project looks at ways to use Maine’s rich forest resources in a way that will lessen the nation’s dependence on oil, which would likely lead to more intensive use of Maine’s forests. The research Matt’s classes were involved with tried to establish which areas in Maine’s western mountains were most important to recreational users. Students asked more than 300 visitors at ski resorts to “sketch map” their favorite locations for skiing, mountain biking, hunting, or just enjoying the scenery. The students worked in the computer lab with sophisticated software to “digitize” all the skiers’ sketch maps to create a common set of maps showing the most important recreational and scenic areas.

The idea is, if Maine’s forests start to be cut more to create ethanol, then policy-makers could use the maps Matt’s students created to prioritize areas that should be maintained for recreation and the areas that are more suitable for logging.

Bringing the Real World Into the Classroom

Another way Matt helps his students connect to the subject matter is to bring community leaders into his classes to share their expertise and experience. Some recent examples: a local leader came to discuss the success and failures with the town’s planning process; a nationally recognized historian came to speak about the prospects of the heritage planning process (a project Matt’s Historical Geography class was working on at the time).

Outside the Classroom: Innovation and Excitement — Putting Theory into Practice

To help his students see the world — and to let the world see them — Matt McCourt regularly brings his students to national and regional professional conferences where they are often the only undergraduates in attendance. (Such conferences are typically designed for graduate-level students and professionals in the field). His students frequently present scholarly papers and classroom projects at these influential industry gatherings, and their work is very well received.

Student Geographers Need to Travel

For example, Matt recently brought a Sociology student to a national Geography conference in Chicago where she presented a research paper on historical efforts to regulate billboards. It turns out her work made quite an impact on those in attendance. Matt’s academic colleagues told him that his student’s work was on par with the presentations by graduate students from some national-caliber research institutions. Her work was that impressive.

In addition, two more students are co-authoring with Matt a paper to be delivered at a national geography conference in Boston. The paper, entitled “Mapping Claims on the Maine Woods,” is based on a sketch mapping project done in Matt’s class.

You see, undergraduate research is a University of Maine at Farmington hallmark and one of the goals of Matt’s department is to not only prepare students to produce national-caliber quality research but to give them ample opportunity to present their work to a national-caliber audience. At Farmington, students present their research early and often: in the classroom, at UMF’s annual Symposium Day, and at professional conferences across the country. (This happens in almost every major at UMF.)

A True Academic — Areas of Special Interest

Matt says his passion is teaching. In fact, he said he chose to work at UMF primarily because of the University’s heavy emphasis on faculty who teach students (which is not always the case at other institutions).

What excites him is the opportunity to collaborate with other, often working with faculty and students in academic disciplines different from his own field. And since his Ph.D. research focused on University-community collaboration and partnerships, Matt also works closely with businesses and organizations outside the University. He strongly believes such collaboration creates a campus and community environment of what he calls “equal-ness.”

Respected in the Field — Noteworthy Accomplishments

At the national level Matt is a respected professional geographer whose work focuses on topics such as community GIS, rural development and geography. His areas of special interest include economic geography, rural geography, community geographic information science (GIS), and social theory, among others.

Matt recently wrote an article for the Journal of Historical Geography that investigates the 1930’s Harlan County, Kentucky coal miner strike, a topic he researched for his Ph.D. The article investigates the role a group of early so-called “intellectuals” had in the strike — the intervention of doctors, lawyers, writers, etc., who supported the strikers. The early group of intellectuals made some mistakes which led to the strike being largely unsuccessful and resulted in a violent response.

Matt also found that, perhaps not surprising given the political climate of the time, media accounts of the strike were very different from the written diary accounts of the doctors, lawyers and writers who supported the strikers involved. He found they were actually quite conflicted and confused about the real-world situation they naively entered into.

Outside of Academia — Personal Interests and Activities

Outside of his hectic but interesting academic life, Matt McCourt is equally (if not more) busy raising toddler-aged twins. In the wintertime, he and his wife enjoy cross-country and telemark skiing, which they do locally at nearby Sugarloaf and Farmington’s Titcomb Mountain Ski Area. Matt also enjoys hiking, camping, gardening and birding. In fact, Matt and his wife have tracked birds who visit their feeders for Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab’s citizen science projects.

On semester breaks, he is a frequent traveler to the Caribbean: Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands, where he and his wife are avid snorkelers. In fact, Matt was snorkeling Coki Point Beach on the island of St. Thomas when he received the cell phone call offering him the job to teach at Farmington.

Matt and his family reside in downtown Farmington.