Online Mapping Reinvents Ethnic Studies

Digital technology's commonplace in many college classrooms, particularly those that teach mathematics or the hard sciences. One California professor has found a compelling way to integrate new mapping technology into her sociology courses, allowing her students to gain a better understanding of how local ethnic demographics shape their lives. Schools offering Gender Diversity Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Capturing Student Interest

California State University San Marcos associate professor Theresa Suarez has, according to Inside Higher Ed, described herself as a late adopter when it comes to technology in the classroom. Yet when she found herself having a problem with student engagement, an online mapping program ended up providing her with the tool she needed to connect her pupils with class material.

The program's called ArcGIS, and as its name implies it employs geographic information systems (GIS) that allows users to create custom maps based on their interests. For Professor Suarez's class, that meant viewing demographic data about race and ethnicity in each student's home community. Once the maps showing racial diversity were constructed, students were asked to digitally mark locations important to their own lives. Finally, Suarez tasked the students with writing an essay reflecting on how the demographic data on the map impacted their day-to-day experiences.

Suarez's ultimate goal was to get students thinking about the social sciences in a way that was both accessible and relevant, and she seems to have succeeded. She reports that many students came to realizations about the world around them they hadn't had before, focused on both how ethnic diversity shapes communities and how communities help define racial identities. Students also discovered the limiting factors of demographic data, which can't entirely describe any one person's social experience.

An Adaptable Technology

Making use of GIS in the classroom is nothing new. Many schools employ the technology in a variety of disciplines, including science, business, health and even language arts. In 2003 educator Marsha Alibrandi released a book entitled GIS in the Classroom: Using Geographic Information Systems in Social Studies and Environmental Science that's aimed at a K-12 set of learners.

In the end, any technology that increases students' engagement with education instead of distracting them from it is one to be embraced, as Professor Suarez learned. Her use of GIS to make ethnic studies lessons more vivid and relevant is one that can be adapted not only by other educators, but by any of us as well. It's always interesting to discover the subtle, unseen influences that affect our daily lives. In a way, that's the key task of social scientists, and it's one in which we can all participate.

Read about how digital mapping can affect societal good.

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