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Author: Jim Brown
Title: Using GIS to Drive Research in Undergraduate History Classes - A Report on Five Years of Experimentation with the Modern World History Survey Course
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2008

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Source: Using GIS to Drive Research in Undergraduate History Classes - A Report on Five Years of Experimentation with the Modern World History Survey Course
Jim Brown

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

Using GIS to Drive Research in Undergraduate History Classes - A Report on Five Years of Experimentation with the Modern World History Survey Course

Jim Brown

Department of History
Samford University


Requiring students to give a GIS-based presentation of their research project to class near the end of term (along with a classic research paper submitted to the instructor) has had two results: 1) there has been marked increased of class interest in the presentations of their peers, and 2) it has gotten the better students in class into a feedback loop between GIS and historical documents that has deepened their interest and their research. In this article the author discusses the evolution of the experiment, especially the four years of work funded by the NSF grant AEGIS (Academic Excellence in GIS).


GIS, ArcGIS and history, AEGIS, GIS and history, world history survey, undergraduate research in history, problem-based learning


For a dozen years now the author has been working with a subset of Problem-based Learning in which the “problem” that engages and motivates the student is associated more with the required student presentation than with the actual content matter. First fruit of this was getting students to create their own spreadsheet-based games/simulations of historical topics under consideration-the formation of modern nation-states since 1800, for example. It worked very well in terms of motivating students to do research: they had to have good historical facts and then clearly articulated historical patterns in order to create plausible simulations. If the games/simulations reached implausible conclusions, the historical patterns had to be re-thought and researched in more depth. This project, incidentally, gave them general spreadsheet skills for use in later public or private life. [1]

More recently the author’s project of re-integrating world history and geography through GIS has led in the same direction-that is, it has gone from being a teacher’s presentation technique to a challenging, engaging “problem” of student research presentation. It has also, and this time not incidentally, left them with some general GIS skills for use in later life.

Campus GIS and History Background

When GIS first appeared on Samford campus in the early '90s (the Geography Department’s new computer lab doubled as an E.S.R.I. training facility), I was trying in fairly low—tech ways to make interactive 3—D contour maps of various historically important corridors-as with Japan’s Tokaido, for example, that runs from today’s Tokyo to Kyoto and has been the most important transportation artery in Japan for perhaps a thousand years. This involved tracing contour lines from atlases onto transparencies, projecting contour lines onto layers of cardboard or foam (and frankly guessing at the missing contour lines), then cutting the various layers (with scissors or hot-wire cutters). It was all very laborious and time—consuming, although in the process I did invent and patent a way to collapse multiple contour layers into four or five “motherboards.” [2] This way one of these 3—D models could be knocked down and stored in small compass, and then in another class interactively built up again by students as the instructor “talked” the topography, climate, vegetation and such up with the growing elevation layers.

Immediately ArcGIS offered me a way to create contour lines digitally, and then send them as e—mail attachments to a computer—controlled laser cutter in a manufacturing facility across town. My contour layers were now laser—cut, in vivid color by elevation, and foam—backed to reduce sliding (the back also color—coded for quick deconstruction at end of class. These interactive 3—D models work as well in history class today as they did a decade ago. [3]

Student Use of ArcGIS

More importantly, ArcGIS offered a way for my history students to get directly into this new way of reintegrating geography and world history. In 2002, I was one of five professors on campus on a grant-writing team that won a substantial National Science Foundation grant (grant name was AEGIS, “Academic Excellence in GIS”) the chief purpose of which was to spread knowledge of GIS over the general education curriculum here at Samford University. The other four grant writers were from the Biology and Geography departments; I was the sole Historian of the group. We, and all the other faculty members recruited for the project, got some education in the evolution of GIS, including the role of remote sensing. We received ArcGIS training in a January mini-mester and in a summer term. We also got the rather expensive suite of ArcGIS software installed on our office computers and in fact on every student lab computer on campus.

As a history teacher, I was impressed with two main aspects of the ArcGIS with which we were working.

First was the exciting visuality of manipulating layers of data: creating hillshading to help with depth perception; colorizing terrain by elevation; making such colorized elevation any degree of transparency to let hillshading show through; zooming in and out; turning on and off layers symbolizing roads, railroads, rivers, flood plains, towns and cities, and being able to change color and size of symbols. Most remarkable was the ability to query such a map, asking it for the names of certain cities or states in its gazetteer, or whether a rail line was single or double track-never again would a static 2-D map, in a book or hung on a wall, be as good (though you could also go to Layout View in ArcGIS and produce a 2-D map of your own design, if needed).

The second aspect was the ability to create new categories inside each layer, and add data to those new categories. In that first year of our training, the main outside advisor for the grant was William E. Huxthold, Professor of Urban Planning, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. [4] In his keynote presentation to us, he said more than once that GIS was not just computerized mapping; it was a data management tool with all the data simply visually linked by means of a map. At the time I thought that was an exaggerated claim; but within the year I had absolutely accepted it as true

Of those two main aspects of GIS, it is really only the first that I have used with my freshman and sophomore history survey classes.

Chief vehicle for this in terms of history courses on campus was our Hist 200 “The West in Global Perspective,” a hybrid western civilization-world civilization survey course in history since 1500. Half the time in the course is devoted to the new sources of modern European power, both technological and social (ideologies of nationalism, socialism, and such). The other half is on world history as it played out on six key transportation corridors representing six different non-European regions of the world-a history in microcosm for each region, mainly in how the people there reacted to the intrusion of this new European power. [5] As instructor I began to introduce students to each corridor through the medium of ArcGIS, showing color-coded elevation maps, locating the major cities and states or provinces, sketching in the major road network.

The GIS specialist in our Geography Department, and Principal Investigator for the AEGIS grant, was Professor Max Baber (who also has an article in this series on the technical side of getting GIS-based teaching up and running). I had learned enough about manipulating data once it was in ArcGIS (as an .mxd file) that I could use it for my teaching and also teach its use to students. Despite the many hours spent working with this, however, I was never able to access outside data and clip it to fit my “area of interest” with any facility. Max spent the necessary hours working with me to access such data, and together we came up with .mxd files and associated data layers for all six “great roads” or key world regional transportation corridors for student use. Each one included empty point, line and polygon layers for individual students to use in showing key historical sites, routes, and areas connected with their research topic.

GIS Lab Manuals for the Survey History Class

But soon this evolved into much more interactive student computer lab manuals, the aim of which was two-fold: 1) to introduce the corridor under discussion, as a stage setting for the regional history in microcosm to be played out there; and 2) to give students (in two one-hour lab sessions) all the skills they needed to develop their own GIS presentation, based on their research paper, towards end of term.

Below are the two lab manuals. If a reader has access to ArcGIS (ArcMap, Arc World, etc.), and actually wants to work through the lab manual or take a history class through it, the two .mxd files and all the needed data layers are available on the author’s faculty web page (included in the Resources section at the end of this article). For the first lab session, with this (for freshmen and sophomore gen ed students) slightly scary sounding technology, the instructor has students sit two to a computer console-one to read instructions (hard copy handed to them) and one to man the keyboard. The first instruction asks them to go to the campus WebCT for the course, to access and open the relevant .zip file (lab instruction manual also there in .pdf form). Two weeks later, for the second lab session, students for whom this process is now presumably less scary are seated individually and are asked to toggle back and forth between .pdf instruction manual and related .mxd file. Most every page of the lab manuals has as visual illustration a screen capture of how the ArcGIS project should look at that point. The material of the first is from the Veracruz-to-Mexico City corridor, the subject of lecture and readings at that time in the course; material of the second is from the Durban-to-Johannesburg corridor, subject of lecture and readings at that time.

Partial Transition to Google Earth

In the middle of the basic three-year NSF “AEGIS” grant (which was extended for one additional year) two things happened about the same time that changed the nature of the enterprise.

One was my growing frustration with the ArcGIS suite in getting 3-D flybys of terrain up and running, to say nothing of the problems of training students in the intricacies of 3D Analyst. Despite my commitment of hundreds of hours to teaching myself ArcGIS, I was still dependent on the GIS expert in our Geography Department for the creation of new models, especially those of the 3-D variety, and he had more to do than be the fulltime computer assistant for a history professor. Besides, students only had access to ArcGIS on campus lab computers, and ESRI’s highly touted freeware ArcExplorer, upon launch, turned out to offer almost none of the exciting interactivity that the regular ArcGIS suite did.

Two, about this same time Google bought up the Keyhole Markup Language and created the much more user-friendly GIS software Google Earth as (in its basic form) a free download. Later Google acquired Panoramio, wherein photographs made by the public at large could be embedded into Google Earth at the points (hopefully) where they were taken on the earth’s surface, and accessed by anyone when the “Geographic Web” layer of Google Earth was turned on.

Like many people, I had casually explored parts of the earth’s surface of interest to me in Google Earth, but did not really understand its potential usefulness to me, a teacher, until May of 2006. In that month the university GIS specialist and I were invited to another campus to make a presentation on ways in which GIS-specifically ArcGIS-could be integrated into the Humanities. Our most interested audience member asked more than once, “what can ArcGIS do that Google Earth can’t?” It turns out that here are indeed many things ArcGIS does, in terms of data management capabilities built into its layers, in terms of precision of inlaying smaller maps into a larger map surface, and many more. But in detailed exchanges with this faculty member, I realized there was a depth of potential in Google Earth of which I had only scratched the surface.

That summer I taught myself Google Earth by systematically going through the Help menu, using recent trips to Kenya and Peru as subjects in my homemade training exercises. I then gradually branched out into creation of student training modules connected with my “great roads” microcosmic approach to world regional history. Today in my survey history classes Google Earth is beginning to replace ArcGIS as the GIS vehicle of choice for integrating history and geography (though I should note that my colleague Barry Robinson, who uses GIS more in upper-level history courses, still prefers ArcGIS especially for its data layer creation capacity). Unlike ArcGIS, Google Earth is available as a free download, and its 3-D “flight” capability is simple and intuitively easy to use. I introduce each world region with a Google Earth folder (which e-mails as a .kmz file) made up of Placemarks, Image Overlays, Paths, and Polygons, and in the process teach students how to create each as the tools needed for their end-of-term presentation of research project.

Specifically, I teach them to create a Placemark-to label it, to locate it and lock in a view, to change color, size, opacity and symbolism of icon, to link to digital image by embedding the simple formula <img src=“C:/MyFiles/image.jpg”> (where what is between quotation marks just tells the program where to access your digital image), to enter prose in descriptive box, including website addresses they or any user can click on to access the site.

I teach them to use Image Overlay to correctly embed smaller maps, including of course any historical map they find in digital form or want to scan to put into digital form, into the larger Google Earth surface (where Google Earth will automatically drape it over the digitally-created topography). When expanding or shrinking the map being embedded, for example, holding down the Shift key makes such change proportional. It does not have the precision of ArcGIS, in which you can cross-reference (“georectify”) dozens of points and stretch the whole image like a rubber sheet-but it is close enough for government work and the explanation of most history!

I also teach them to create and colorize Paths (for historical routes) and Polygons (for areas), even though at present Paths can only be created in the $20/year Google Earth Plus, and Polygons only in the $400/year Google Earth Pro. These for-pay programs are available on student lab computers, and once the needed Paths and Polygons have been created, they show up just fine in the basic free version of Google Earth. For Paths in particular, I want students to be able to create a detailed road (for example, the main road through the five-mile-long Khyber Pass) in all its twists and turns, and to symbolize it brightly and in very visible width-but then to create a smoother Path and make it invisible (transparent) along which to “fly” an observer at given height and speed; this way a viewer does not get motion sickness by being jerked around with every twist and turn of the road below. In terms of Polygons, I teach them two techniques of creating discontinuous areas. One is to create a folder in which can be collected Polygon layers, one for each of the discontinuous area: by leaving such a folder collapsed, one can turn on all the Polygons in it by simply turning on the folder. The other technique is to create one single Polygon, but with connections between the discontinuous areas so narrow (created by zooming in tightly) that they will not show up in any normal view of the Google Earth surface. One most valuable technique they learn is to embed a historical map in Google Earth, create Placemarks, Paths and Polygons on top of its relevant components, then erase the historical map, leaving only the data that was relevant (source of original map to be footnoted in the descriptive box of the folder or layer).

Finally, I teach students some general tools, such as how to use the mouse alone to tilt and zoom, how to reverse the mouse wheel zoom direction, how to exaggerate elevation differences, how to set speed, height, and angle of view of a Path being flown, and such.

I regularly e-mail students updated .kmz files of given corridors under discussion for them to explore the countryside that was the stage on which the history under discussion played out. Many of the layers these .kmz files are Placemarks indicating a particular Panoramio icon to click open, for a view of terrain, architecture, historical monument, etc. It is working out so well that I am currently converting a modern world history text I have been writing into a GIS-based text, every sub-chapter with its own parallel Google Earth folder/.kmz file for users to view at their own pace, on a computer of their own choice.

The Presentation “Problem” Itself

This all gets us to the “problem” itself, which is student presentations of their research to the whole class, at term’s end, on an ArcGIS or Google Earth platform. In the current Hist 200 “West in Global Perspective” class, students are divided into four small groups: Latin Americans, Africans, Japanese and Indians. Students take the daily reading quiz both individually and with their group, which provides: a) a springboard to classroom discussion of readings, and b) at least the beginnings of group solidarity. Then two weeks into the course each small group is given a list of potential individual research topics, chosen by me the instructor with a careful eye as to how well it plays out along the chosen regional corridor. For the Latin American group, for example, topics are chosen that played out mainly along the Veracruz-to-Mexico City transportation corridor:

  • the life and works of Fr. Sahagún
  • the life and writings of Sor Juana Inés
  • the feria-flota (royal fair-convoy) system of 18th century New Spain
  • movements of the armies of Fathers Hidalgo &Morelos
  • the early life of Antonio López de Santa Anna
  • Winfield Scott’s Veracruz-to-Mexico City invasion of Mexico
  • the French invasions of Mexico in 1862 and 1863–5
  • the financing and building of the Ferrocarril Mexicano
  • construction, drainage, etc., on this corridor during the Porfiriato
  • training of Cuban guerrillas (and one Argentine) on Las Rosas farm, Valley of Mexico, 1956
  • the lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as they intersected our corridor
  • events in and around Mexico City in 1968, the Olympic Games year

Typically even the worst of student presentations are of enough visual interest to hold their classmates’ attention. The best of them always teach me something interesting about the topic (and the corridor) that I did not know. The student creators of these best have gotten themselves into a feedback loop between historical research and Google Earth. One bare bones description of the best historical and cultural education goes as follows: “read, travel, read, travel, etc.” While there is no substitute for the reality of travel, Google Earth with its embedded Panoramio icons (with picture titles in many different languages and even scripts), Wikipedia and Google Earth Community icons, makes possible a history course strongly grounded in geography. Framing Indonesia in a Google Earth view and then turning on the “Places of Interest” layer with its orange volcano symbols rimming the coasts of virtually all the southernmost Indonesian islands is one of those “picture worth a thousand words” illustrations.

I encourage my students in their research to get to university press monographs and scholarly journal articles-but also to keep the Samford Library homepage open, minimized on their computer screen until needed, for immediate access to the Oxford English Dictionary especially for etymology of unfamiliar words, for the Encycloopedia Britannica, and of course for full-text journal articles. I also ask them to keep Google or other search engine idling, and want them to do not just the website search that is the Google default setting but also the Google image and video searches (for possible embedding in the descriptive boxes of their Google Earth layers). In addition, a web search engine such as Google can also usually access free (if limited) on-line English-to-whatever-local-language, as in the Náhuatl they will need for many geographic features in and around the Valley of Mexico, for example, or the Afrikaans and Zulu placenames in KwaZulu-Natal, with so much history embedded in the words.

Pedagogically speaking, the ability of teacher and student to e-mail each other these Google Earth folders/.kmz files, to modify them and send them back, makes for speed and ease of communication in more of a co-learned atmosphere. And student use of Google Earth in this advanced manner, as opposed to casual exploration of earth’s surface, should be an asset to students in many aspects of their future lives, both private and professional.

In January of 1973, early in the author’s teaching career (that now stretches to some 37 years of fulltime college teaching), he asked students in a Jan-term class in the evolution of German cultural nationalism to make an animated map of population movements and political rises and falls from 200 B.C. to 600 A.D. He suspended a 16mm movie camera from the rafters of his basement, focused on a poster board with the outlines of Europe on it on the floor. The idea was to let different colored piles of glitter represent different peoples or polities-red for the Celts, Blue for the Germans, Gold for the Romans, Green for the Slavs, black for the Huns-and small groups of students were responsible for researching where their particular group was when (and making plausible guesses when they data was insufficient, including negotiating with all neighboring small groups of students responsible for other historical groups). The map was to move at five years to the second. The camera, which ran film at 24 frames/sec, was put on stop action; clicking the shutter 3 times and then moving the piles of glitter yielded 8 movements per second, or five years. A running calendar in top left corner of the posterboard changed every second. It was such a time consuming project that the running map only made it to A.D. 200, not even to the Hunnish drive from the east in 375 and and the famous Germanic folkswanderings it set in motion. The lighting varies; the calendar shifts around; student hands are caught in eighth-second glimpses withdrawing from the posterboard-the reach, in other words, exceeded the grasp. But the author remembers how much research it took, and how well the film (of which he recently made a CD copy) visually linked it all together. Today, at the twilight of his teaching career, GIS technology is finally making such projects feasible. [6]


1. J. Brown. “Nationalism Spreadsheet Simulation.” Research and Development in Problem Based Learning, vol. 5 (1999), PBL: A Way Forward, pp. 25–32.

2. U.S. Patent 5686154, “Three-dimensional topographical model.”

3. For other images of such interactive 3-D maps, plus ideas on how the approach might work in higher primary and in secondary education, see article by Jim Brown and Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez, “Pearls on a Chain: Learning History and Geography with a 3-D Map.” Social Studies and the Young Learner, vol. 14, No. 2 (Nov/Dec 2001), pp. 10–16.

4. Author of An Introduction to Urban Geographic Information Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), Managing Geographic Information System Projects (Oxford U. Pr. 1994), GIS County User Guide: Laboratory Exercises in Urban Geographic Information Systems (Oxford U. Pr. 1997), and ArcGIS and the Digital City (Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2004).

5. For the advantages of such a microcosmic approach to modern world regional history, especially as paired with GIS—produced 3—D terrain models, see an article by Jim Brown and Douglass Sullivan—Gonzalez, “A 'Great Roads’ Approach to Teaching Modern World History and Latin American Regional Survey Courses: A Veracruz To Mexico City Case Study.” Teaching History, vol. 27, No. 2 (fall 2002), pp. 59–73.

6. As of this writing, at the Chicago Field Museum’s “Festival of Maps,” there as a “Civil War in 4 Minutes” animation, also available online.