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Today’s digital tools bring IU Northwest history courses to life

While searching for ways to liven up learning, Christopher Young discovers another discipline’s tool works for history, too

Friday Mar 03, 2017


When it comes to learning history, not everyone is as naturally riveted by the events of colonial and revolutionary America as Christopher Young.

In an effort to enhance his students’ learning experience, the Indiana University Northwest associate professor of history had been searching for a way to meld history lessons with the digital age. Young wanted to engage his students in the scholarship of discovery by having them create something new, something that would make its own contribution to the discipline.

Young found some web applications that were mildly interesting, but they were either too expensive or too complicated. Then, he discovered the solution lay with an IU Northwest colleague.

Joseph Ferrandino, associate professor of criminal justice, has been using mapping software to plot crime data used by law enforcement and related agencies to improve public safety practices. The Arc GIS software, which is behind the successful Northwest Indiana Public Safety Data Consortium, has been lauded for its use outside the public safety realm and application across multiple multiple industries and academic disciplines.

Given that geography and history are inherently connected, Ferrandino’s tool set off a “light bulb moment” for Young.

“If I read a history book, the way you’ll know how much I love the book is if I pull out a map,” Young said. “Maps have a way of amplifying learning.”

Young asked Ferrandino to instruct his students on how to use the mapping tool. The rest, as they say, is history.

An Innovative Approach

In his first semester of incorporating the mapping tool, while studying the “Early Republic,” the students completed both individual and group projects. One project was to map the oft-forgotten 1838 Potawatomi removal from Indiana, also known as the “Trail of Death.” Last fall, Young introduced the tool in a class about Abraham Lincoln. This semester, the digital mapping project will focus on the colonial and revolutionary eras in America.

“I had several students who knocked it out of the park and they presented their work at last year’s College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Conference,” Young said.

One of those students was Karl Lugar, a senior majoring in history.

When readers look at Lugar’s map of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train and the route it took from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Ill., they’ll notice the train wound its way through Northwest Indiana to Chicago.

Familiarity with the places where historical characters stood makes them seem more real. Right off of Wabash St. in Michigan City, for instance, the map notes one location where “Thirty-six ladies dressed in white to symbolize mourning.” Those who have stood in that very place, or can visualize it, won’t soon forget the facts they learned about Lincoln so easily, Young says.

Young noted that his collaboration with Ferrandino, now in its third semester, illustrates the incredible value of inter-disciplinary collaboration.

“The result is a product to illustrate a student’s competency,” Young explained. “It’s public. It’s accessible. It can live on and grow. The project becomes a tangible contribution to the study of history.”

A Culture of Perpetual Discovery

Drew Boetel, a secondary education major, talked about how plotting events and places on a map helped him retain the material and prompted him to want to discover more. He laughed that the project was so interesting that he went out and bought himself an additional book to read.

“And, I’m not even a history major,” he laughed.

Young explained that digital projects encourage students to be more creative and take more risks. They are empowered to create their own histories, in lessons that can be consumed by others.

Lugar, for instance, didn’t stop at mapping the “Trail of Death.” He took his assignment to another level when he investigated connections that he stumbled upon during his research, thus adding both a backstory and part two to the project.

Shena Benus, a junior majoring in history, intends to pursue a graduate degree and hopes to work in a museum as an archivist.

She appreciates the way that Young is taking history lessons out of the standard “lecture and notes” box.

“I like the creativity that he is bringing to the history department,” she said. “Students all learn in different ways. There are multiple ways to pique someone’s interest in a subject and I believe IU Northwest offers that and more to students.”

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