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Authors : Wendy Plotkin, Stephanie Stegman, Christopher Miller
Title: Americans on the Move: Geography and Society in the Post-World War II Period, 1950-2000
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2008

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Source: Americans on the Move: Geography and Society in the Post-World War II Period, 1950-2000
Wendy Plotkin, Stephanie Stegman, Christopher Miller

vol. 11, no. 2, August 2008
Article Type: Article

Americans on the Move: Geography and Society in the Post-World War II Period, 1950-2000

Wendy Plotkin, Stephanie Stegman, and Christopher Miller [1]

This lesson plan is part of a broader effort to use geographic information systems (GIS) in the study of history. We applied for and received a grant to improve history teaching at Arizona State University (ASU), a grant that permitted us to examine GIS as a teaching tool. We explored the theoretical literature on using GIS in teaching, developed a database of accessible, historical shapefiles and data, and debated how to use GIS in a way that enhanced the learning of history, rather than merely introduce students to a new technology. We expanded our GIS skills and fashioned a student assignment that included GIS as one of a variety of learning modes. Over the course of the two-year project, our respect for GIS as a teaching tool increased, and not only because of its effect on learning. We came to believe that teaching GIS as part of the history curriculum was the most promising means of engaging historians in GIS in their own research, as well as extending its benefits to students.

Project Overview

In 2004 and 2005, the Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences awarded the history department a total of $25,000 in Quality of Instruction grants for a project entitled “Incorporating GIS into the Undergraduate Historical Curriculum.” The project initially involved Assistant Professor Wendy Plotkin and Ph.D. student Stephanie Stegman (“the investigators”), with funding for Stegman’s services and for books, training, and other materials. [2] The objectives of this project were to develop lesson plans and other resources to

  • improve students’ conceptual and factual learning in history and geography;
  • familiarize students with the power of mapping and GIS, and encourage them to acquire the skills necessary to do mapping and GIS on their own;
  • encourage other faculty members within the history department to learn GIS so as to be able to create their own lesson plans involving simple, major themes and available maps. [3]

The Setting


ASU was an excellent place to undertake such a project, as it has a strong geography department with a major emphasis in GIS. [4] Although the geography department was not involved in the initial parts of the project, by the second year, one of its faculty members, Christopher Lukinbeal, joined the project as a consultant, and brought with him the services of his graduate research assistant, Drew Lucio. Their assistance was essential in helping the investigators surmount the complexities of using GIS, especially those areas where the training and documentation materials offered only partial explanations or omitted descriptions of possible complications. The map librarian at the university also participated for a short period, until she left ASU for another institution. A graduate student in history at a Midwestern university, Christopher Miller, who used a substantial amount of GIS in his dissertation, was added to the group to provide insight garnered from his experiences. Rounding out the team were staff members from the ASU GIS laboratory, which existed independently of the geography department, as well as instructional technology specialists assigned to the history department. The GIS laboratory’s services were limited by the organizational changes it—and the university—were undergoing. The lab was dependent on outside support for its existence, and thus the staff had to devote most of its time to projects with external funding. This has recently changed, and the availability of GIS technical assistance at the university has proven of great benefit to the ongoing project. [5] Fortunately, the instructional technology specialists were able to offer support on issues such as installing and licensing the GIS programs, an aspect of the project that was more complicated than the investigators had anticipated. [6]


Because of the presence of the geography department and GIS laboratory, the university already held licenses from ESRI for the major GIS programs. This allowed the project to obtain Desktop ArcGIS with minimal cost and effort, and to take advantage of the university’s contract for technical support from ESRI.

Classrooms & Instructional Facilities

ASU has made major efforts to provide its classrooms with instructional technology. Most classrooms now include a range of media equipment, with the best including teaching workstations that combine personal computers and DVD and VCR players with overhead projectors and screens. A smaller portion of the classrooms offer PCs for students as well as teachers.

Background Skills of Lesson Plan Creators

Neither Plotkin nor Stegman had worked with GIS at the start of the project. Thus, the first months of the project were devoted to learning GIS, and becoming familiar with the pedagogical resources available for this purpose. [7] Given that the goal of the project was to develop lesson plans and other resources for use in teaching, the threshold knowledge for learning GIS was lower than if the object was to use GIS as a research tool. Because digitized outline maps and data are relatively plentiful for the geographies and themes taught in undergraduate history courses, the investigators could forego attaining advanced skills such as geo-referencing or obtaining arcane data that are needed by GIS-using researchers. Limiting their initial use of GIS to developing simple maps and lesson plans in undergraduate history courses would allow them to focus on achieving a mastery of the basic GIS skills, building a good foundation should they decide to pursue more advanced projects.

One of the first lessons for the investigators was that learning GIS was not enough—creating even the simplest maps required a good knowledge of cartography. Thus, in addition to learning GIS, they began to investigate the art of map design, drawing on the increasing number of popular books and manuals on this topic, such as Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design For GIS. [8] These resources taught them about the elements of maps—projections, scales, methods of organizing and representing data, legends, and documentation—and offered simple training in applying this to the first set of maps they created.

The Lesson Plan

Choice of Software

The lesson plan was created for use in an upper level undergraduate history course in post-World War II U.S. history, one of the courses taught by the investigators. It was decided to design it for use with ArcExplorer, the free ESRI GIS viewer. This decision rested on several goals:

  • to offer students a gradual introduction to GIS, starting with the experience of learning the features of the GIS environment before they attempted to create maps;
  • to minimize the time and effort involved in students’ attaining the basic technology skills to complete the assignment;
  • to reduce adverse reactions among the students to GIS, which has a reputation among far more advanced historians for its steep learning curve;
  • to minimize the time and effort involved in students’ obtaining the required software.

These goals reflected the desire to use this assignment in large classes of seventy or more students, and to balance the benefits of using GIS with the desire to cover a certain amount of content in a given semester.

Using ArcExplorer rather than ArcGIS limited the interactive and creative aspects of the assignment, as students were not able to create their own maps. However, the investigators saw this as a first step both for themselves in terms of building their own GIS skills, and for the students, in gaining exposure to GIS. The next stage of the project would be to design lesson plans involving students’ use of GIS programs to create maps on their own, something for which their initial interaction with ArcExplorer would hopefully whet their intellectual appetites.

Components of Lesson Plan

The lesson plan consists of the following components:

  • Narrative—provides introduction to the content, asks questions, and provides illustrated instructions in using ArcExplorer;
  • Answer sheet—lists questions with spaces for hand-written or word-processed answers by students;
  • Appendix A-C—provide three tables for students to answer structured questions involving lists;
  • Readings—four articles from the New York Times

Content of Lesson Plan

The theme of the lesson plan is the post-World War II movement of Americans to the Sunbelt. This is a major feature of the era, one that is particularly suited to exploring the significance of place in history. It also lends itself to analysis of political, cultural, economic, and social changes, as will be seen in the analytical questions the students are asked to answer in the course of the assignment.

Before undertaking the assignment, students are expected to read two chapters—“Plugging In” and “The Reddening of America.”—in The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Society, Culture, and Politics. [9] These chapters focus on the restlessness of Americans in the post-World War II years, and the reasons that they were drawn to the Southwest. They also examine the effects of this movement, honing in on the revival of the South, the tempering of its “redneck” reputation, and the adoption by the rest of the nation of many aspects of Southern culture.

To complement the reading, the narrative includes a discussion of the history of internal migration in U.S. history, noting that Americans have by and large been a people on the move (see Narrative, 1-2). It then turns to the indicator that is used to examine mobility in the assignment—“in-state nativity”—the proportion of individuals born in the state in which they reside (see Narrative, 3). At this point, the interactive portion of the assignment begins, with the narrative asking the students about their own histories of geographical mobility, and that of their parents (see Narrative, 4). At ASU, this has particular saliency, since, currently, about half of the students are born outside of Arizona. In addition to asking about where they and their parents originally lived, the narrative asks students about the reasons for the moves, to stimulate their thinking about the sources of mobility in U.S. society.

Use of ArcExplorer

Students then begin their work with ArcExplorer, which they’ve been asked previously to download. They are given discs with the ArcExplorer files to copy to their computers, and told to open ArcExplorer and the file containing the maps. They are first shown a screen with legends for three different maps (1950, 1990, and 2000) on the left hand side, but no maps showing. The narrative instructs them to “click” in the box next to the 1950 legend and “select” the 1950 map by clicking on the text to the right of the box. The 1950 map showing states falling into four ranges of in-state nativity appears (see Narrative, 4)

Analysis of 1950 Maps

The narrative then instructs students to list the states that fall into each range on a separate answer sheet (see Appendix A). They are asked to discern regional patterns and exceptions to these patterns, and to speculate on the reasons for both (see Narrative, 4).

Although the maps focus on in-state nativity, the assignment also requires the students to examine other characteristics such as population, land area, and density. With the 1950 map, students are told to use the “Query Builder” feature of ArcExplorer to identify the states with the largest and smallest populations in 1950 (see Narrative, 5). This serves two purposes. First, it familiarizes the students with basic U.S. physical and cultural geography. Second, it provides a foundation for introducing them to the changing significance of these characteristics in American society. The narrative describes the positive and negative connotations of population growth in the 1950s, and asks the students to read two 1950s articles from the New York Times, one reporting on the U.S. Census count of Americans at 150,000,000, and the other describing the move to the Southwest and the winners and losers in these moves (see Narrative, 5 and Readings #1 & #2). This allows students to witness the continuing importance of physical and demographic expansion in buttressing the nation’s sense of self-importance in the years when the United States attained an unprecedented degree of prosperity and influence in world affairs.

Analysis of 1990 Maps

Students are told to close the 1950 map and to open the 1990 map. Before investigating in-state nativity patterns, students are queried about the presence of Alaska and Hawaii on the 1990 map and their absence on the earlier map (both became states in 1959) (see Narratives, 6). They are then asked to read two pieces from the 1959 New York Times—an article and an editorial. These describe the struggle of Alaska to achieve statehood over a half century, and reveal the national sense of pride associated with the addition of the huge state (see Readings #3 & #4). Building on the theme of physical size, the narrative instructs students to use the Query Builder to find the largest (after Alaska) and smallest states. It then asks them whether there is a relationship between land area and population, and instructs them to find the most and least populous states in 1990 (see Narrative, 7). Finally, it asks them to identify the densest and least dense states in the nation. In an interpretive passage, the narrative discusses the variety of attitudes Americans have about density舒some preferring suburban or rural areas offering open space and less contact with strangers, while others gravitate towards towns and cities, with their opportunities for greater cosmopolitanism and diversity (see Narrative, 7).

Students are then asked to repeat the exercise of recording the states that fall into each of the four ranges of in-state nativity in 1990, noting regional patterns and exceptions, and contrasting these patterns with those of 1950 (see Narrative, 8). They are also introduced to the concept of simplification in maps, using the Map Tips feature of ArcExplorer which allows them to discover the range of values for “in-state” nativity within a single quartile (see Narrative, 8).

Analysis of 2000 Maps

Students are told to close the 1990 map and open the 2000 map. Again, they are asked to list the states according to the “in-state nativity” categories into which they fall, and to note regional patterns and exceptions, and compare these to the 1950 and 1990 maps (see Narrative, 9).

Analysis of All Maps

Finally, the students are asked to view all three maps. They are told to list states according to the types of changes in in-state nativity experienced from 1950-2000: those that experienced no change in the quartile ranking; those that moved to a higher quartile; and those that moved to a lower quartile (see Narrative, 9).

Research Paper

After the students have completed the ArcExplorer part of the lesson plan, they are assigned a ten-page, double-spaced research paper (see Narrative, 10). Before starting, they are directed to do additional research in the New York Times and local newspapers to obtain articles about the post-World War II population shift to the Sunbelt. In the research paper, they are asked to describe changing patterns of inter-state migration in the U.S. from 1950-2000, and to discuss the causes and effects of this migration.

Implementation of Lesson Plan

The lesson plan has been used by Christopher Miller (the Ph.D. student who used GIS in his dissertation) in an undergraduate geography class. Miller noted that, because the lesson plan was largely self-explanatory, most students did not have difficulty with understanding what was expected of them. He had to explain some historical issues to them since many students were not familiar with them, and the course was not designed to do so. However, even with these difficulties, students were able to perform the geographic analysis that they were expected to do. [10] Overall, Miller thought that the students in his class achieved both objectives of the exercise. They were exposed to some basic functions of GIS software, and they gained practice making geographical judgments. The technical expertise required was relatively easy to provide, even for students who were not proficient in computer operation.

The assignment has not yet been used in an undergraduate history class. The investigators have begun to test the assignment in individual and small group trials to obtain feedback on any difficulties undergraduates might experience with the technology and the intellectual content. Initial trials indicate that students find the technology and the content fairly easy. They indicate that the ArcExplorer environment makes retrieving data much easier than if they given print maps and tables. In addition, they cite the benefit of learning about GIS, and express interest in learning to use programs such as ArcGIS so that they can create their own maps.


This lesson plan illustrates several core elements of the investigators’ approach to integrating GIS and technology into the undergraduate classroom. Among the most important is the belief that content and technology must be integrated in teaching. Content adds to the students’ interest and curiosity as they attain technological skills, while the new skills allow the student to “unpack” the content in unique ways.

Closely related is the idea that a good assignment will use more than one technology or intellectual mode, ideally incorporating two or more that stimulate different types of learning. Past efforts to encourage historians and their students to use GIS (or quantitative analysis) have foundered on the narrow rewards that accrue from reliance on these methods alone. Adding textual databases such as New York Times and other qualitative sources, digital and otherwise, can assure students’ interest is sustained, and that the seeds of GIS learning will have a rich soil within which to grow.

A third element is the belief in incremental learning scaled to the available resources. This lesson plan purposely incorporates modest goals that minimize the amount of time involved on the part of the course instructors and maximize the likelihood that students would be successful in meeting the objectives. [11] Anecdotal evidence suggests that intensive introductory GIS projects in the undergraduate history classroom are feasible in select circumstances only. Such circumstances include the participation of instructors with course release or other reduction in research and teaching loads; the involvement of classes with fewer students; the availability of instructional technology or other technical assistants; and opportunities for follow-up for interested students. Overly ambitious lesson plans are likely to result in “burn-out” of the faculty members or success on the part of a smaller number of students.

A fourth element is the belief that, in spite of the appeal for gradualism, the benefits of adding GIS to undergraduate teaching are well worth the commitment of time inside and outside the classroom. Students gain through the addition of spatial awareness in the study of history, as well as exposure to geographical knowledge that will widen their intellectual horizons. To this should be added the improved comprehension that results from carefully designed interactive assignments, especially those that involve visualization. [12] Some will argue that these goals can be achieved without the use of digital technology—that teachers have been providing map assignments to students for many generations, to the same purposes. [13] This is indeed true, but another benefit of GIS—the addition to students’ information literacy—serves to weigh in on the side of using GIS to achieve these benefits. Allowing students to work with GIS gives them access to a technology that offers them unique intellectual and professional skills. Intellectually, should they choose to advance their skills in GIS, they will be able to probe topics in a way that is not possible using other media. Professionally, they will benefit from exposure to a technology that has a rising market value in a broad number of occupations. [14]

Finally, the benefits of using GIS in undergraduate history teaching will ultimately accrue to the faculty and graduate students who do the teaching. The skills involved in creating GIS maps and exercises in undergraduate history courses are less rigorous than those required for developing GIS illustrations and databases for research. [15] Teaching through GIS thus gives instructors the chance to learn GIS in a more gradual manner than that which is used when their introduction comes through research. Should they decide to continue their odyssey in GIS, they will have already acquired the basic concepts necessary for proceeding to more advanced work.

Furthermore, the rewards in using GIS in teaching are immediate and extensive, as classes ranging from small to large sizes are the recipients of the teachers’ efforts. Thus, the initial investment in learning GIS will have already paid off, so that the dependence on research results from using GIS will be less. It is also likely that the lessons learned from using GIS in teaching—such as the importance of using GIS as part of a multi-modal approach will translate to one’s research. In particular, to the extent that GIS is incorporated into one’s research, it should be used not only for spatial analysis, but for presentation purposes, and the research should depend on a variety of analytical approaches, not solely on GIS.

These comments arise from the investigators’ own experiences in this project. Starting with no knowledge of GIS, they have gained enough facility with it that they are able to assess its usefulness in their research. They can now envision opportunities for its use that would not have been apparent without this essential grounding in GIS. For many who have an interest in learning GIS but are doubtful at the outset about the applicability to their research, incorporating GIS in their teaching is a gratifying route to their own professional development.


1. Wendy Plotkin, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Arizona State University; Stephanie Stegman, Ph.D. Candidate (History), Department of History, Arizona State University; Christopher Miller, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

2. Dr. Plotkin provided her services without compensation, although, during the first year of the project, she had a release from one course each semester for this and other activities related to support for use of digital media in undergraduate instruction. The course release was covered by the state of Arizona’s Proposition 301, adopted by voters in 2001.

3. There were four parts to the project. One was the development of the lesson plan that is the subject of this chapter. The other parts included cataloging and developing a database of resources for use in historical GIS; networking with other historians using GIS, especially in teaching; and developing workshops for faculty and graduate students to train them in using GIS in teaching.

4. The Geography Department is now the School of Geographical Sciences. It offers both undergraduate and Masters certificate programs in GIS—see

5. The investigators are likely to apply for federal funding to expand the project in the future, and to include the services of the GIS as a line item in the budget.

6. The degree of complexity depends on which products the investigators use. Programs such as ESRI’s ArcInfo, with a fuller set of capabilities, require a higher level of licensing and protection (e.g. use of a security key) than programs such as ArcGIS.

7. Among the most useful resources were Wilpen L. Gorr & ;Kirsten S. Kurland, GIS Tutorial: Workbook for ArcView 9 (Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2005) and the ESRI tutorials.

8. Mark Monmonier, Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); John Krygier and Denis Wood, Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design For GIS, New Edition (New York: Guilford Press, 2005). Also helpful were on-line resources such as Cynthia Brewer’s “Color Brewer” at and TechSmith’s SnagIt site at .

9. Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Society, Culture, and Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2002)

10. Miller encountered the following types of procedural problems: slowing the process of downloading the data because the students did it all at once in class; dealing with a student who was color-blind; and asking the students to complete the answers in electronic form, forcing the students to go back and forth between the narrative, the ArcExplorer environment, and the answer sheets.

11. This was shaped by the circumstances that the faculty member is not yet tenured, and that the grant funds for the project were themselves quite modest.

12. David J. Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2003).

13. See Judy and Dennis Reinhartz, “‘How Wide the World:’ Geography, Maps, and the Teaching of American History,” 7 OAH Magazine of History (Spring, 1993), 21-26; Dennis Reinhartz, "Teaching History with Maps: A Graphic Dimension," in Walter Prescott Webb and the Teaching of History, ed., Dennis Reinhartz and Stephen E. Maizlish (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985); Edmond T. Parker and Michael P. Conzen, "Using Maps as Evidence: Lessons in American Social and Economic History," ERIC Document Reproduction Service, ED 125 935, 1975, among others.

14. The best information on the job market for GIS and related geospatial technologies is the Department of Labor, Career Voyages, “Geospatial Technology,” at (Accessed March 10, 2008. Occupations incorporating geospatial technology are cited as “emerging industries,” with many listed as “in-demand occupations.”

15. The outline maps and data are usually more readily available, and the themes simpler.