A map titled "History of American Capitalism", which shows superfund sites and the poverty ratio in sections of Michigan and Illinois.

Introducing GIS in the History Classroom: Mapping the Legacies of the Industrial Era in Postindustrial America

Dr. Burd planned this lesson for a 100 level course titled History of American Capitalism. Students built digital maps using ArcGIS Online and later reflected on the benefits of the technology as an educational tool.


During the fall 2018 semester, I taught a coursed titled History of American Capitalism. In addition to a history of economic trends, the course examined the ways in which American capitalism has influenced a set of ideas and cultural attitudes about wealth, citizenship, identity, gender, and the use of natural resources. The course structure was mostly traditional, as a vast majority of instruction blended lecture and seminar-style discussion around several readings. Though I followed this structure for much of the semester, I intentionally designed one module to introduce students to GIS mapping believing that the spatial tool could be an asset in instruction. My decision to choose GIS mapping grew from a wealth of scholarship that demonstrates that spatial tools can improve understanding, critical thinking, and cultural empathy (Hawthorne 2011; Johanson et al. 2012; Kelley 2017; Sinha et al. 2017). By incorporating GIS technology into the course, I introduced students to new digital tools while enabling participants to engage with the course material in a unique way in order to improve historical understanding, critical thinking, and digital literacy.


During the 75-minute session, I designated 15 minutes to reviewing themes from the previous course sessions. Leading up to the course module, I used lecture and assigned readings based on the work of historians that examined ecological and economic realities of postindustrial America (Hurley 1995; Neumann 2019). In class, we reviewed how the closures of industrial sites left many Americans unemployed, often forcing laid-off employees to find employment elsewhere—often at a fraction of their previous salary. The lesson was designed to teach students that although certain businesses may go bankrupt, move, or dissolve, the firms’ legacies long outlive their corporate existence. We can track America’s postindustrial era both through the ecological footprint of industrialization as well as its long-lasting economic void in countless manufacturing communities across the landscape. Tasking students to construct a GIS map of that historical legacy offered students the opportunity to become active learners in the course content.

After reviewing the course materials, I asked students to open ArcGIS Online and provided a brief overview of the tool. Students came to learn that ArcGIS Online is a free, open-access mapping tool that allows users to upload, visualize, analyze, and share geographic-based information. I chose to use ArcGIS Online in place of similar programs such as QGIS and Carto because the platform is free and also provides users quick access to the tool upon registration. I demonstrated the basic functions of the online version of the program including how to add features to a map and change the base layer. I then directed students to the feature that allows users to add new datasets or additional layers to maps based on information published to the web. Informed by the preceding lectures and knowledgeable about the basic functions of ArcGIS Online, students had to search, find, and add a dataset published by the Environmental Protection Agency outlining the National Priorities List of Superfund sites. The dataset provides information on several hundred hazardous sites, each with brief descriptions including the environmental issues and historic company responsible for the waste. The data includes Superfund sites whose addition to the list can date back to the early 1980s (Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980) as well as data compiled within months of the class meeting. I asked students to pick a site, examine the scope of the waste, and do some basic searching on the web about the history of the company. Students often chose Superfund sites close their homes—often surprised to find that such toxic waste ever existed so close to their childhood home. At this point, we had a brief conversation where students shared a specific site and its industrial history. As expected, many of the Superfund sites derived from companies that either closed down, moved, or went bankrupt during the peak deindustrialization years. The visualization created a space for discussion among students as they quickly realized that the toxic legacy of many industrial companies outlived the firms’ years of operation.

The lesson not only tracked the historical roots of modern Superfund sites, it also pressed students to think about how modern populations are still affected by a company’s actions several decades ago. After a vibrant discussion about the Superfund dataset, I asked students to add another dataset that maps poverty ratios based on recent Census statistics (the published data was based on the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2013). As the students built confidence in their ability to navigate the ArcGIS Online tool, they began to realize the potential of map building as an instrument for sharing information and demonstrating visual evidence. Upon adding the new dataset, students explored the geographic relationship between modern poverty rates and the location of toxic waste sites. We began to discuss how adding datasets as separate layers influenced the first set of data and how the correlation between the two might contribute to a larger story of deindustrialization. Students began to imagine how visualizing both sets of data in geographic terms creates visual correlations as both an argument about the information as well as a vehicle to share this information with external audiences. After self-guided exploration, the students came back together for discussion. I asked several questions using the visualization as a source of conversation and critical engagement with the history of the postindustrial era. “Did you know that the American landscape contains this many toxic landscapes? Are there any sites close to your hometown? As you explore the map, do you get a sense of any correlation between poverty rates and current Superfund sites?” The corresponding discussion was strengthened as students navigated the spatial visualization they recently created.

Figure 1. Map with Superfund site and poverty rate information displayed.

Student Reactions

Using an anonymous and voluntary questionnaire, I asked students to reflect on the use of ArcGIS Online and its effectiveness during the course session. In addition to gauging students’ reactions to the specific lesson, I also encouraged students to think more broadly about GIS technology and imagine its possibilities outside of this particular course. Below are sample items from the questionnaire:

  • What past experiences have you had with ArcGIS or other data-visualization technology?
  • When you partook in the historical data-visualization learning module, what did you think you were learning?
  • How could you imagine using ArcGIS and other data-visualization software in the future?

Of the twenty-one students in the course, six volunteered to participate in the survey, and only one student noted previous experience with the tool. The responses could be organized into two basic themes. First, students reflected on how ArcGIS aided in learning the specific content affiliated with the History of American Capitalism course. Second, students demonstrated an understanding how the tool could be applied to other research and writing.

Based on student responses, it became apparent that ArcGIS Online improved student learning and comprehension of the specific lesson. One student noted the connection between the GIS learning module and the larger course themes: “We used two layers on the US map—households below the poverty line and superfund sites—to determine whether there was a particular correlation between the two.” Another student noted that the module provided the “same historical research and content as one would [get] through reading a book or paper.” The students’ comments also revealed how students welcomed the course module. The use of ArcGIS Online broke with more traditional forms of engagement such as journal articles, books, and other text-based course material providing students with different learning styles new opportunities to participate in the class.

One respondent especially appreciated the spatial focus of the exercise noting that the lesson made them aware of “how History and Geography are linked,” and that the “data visualization allow[ed] for patterns to be observed.” The comments reveal ways in which ArcGIS Online might be harnessed as a powerful tool for student learning in the history and humanities classroom. For those lessons that involve geographic information, the careful use of mapping technology offers students with an opportunity to become active learners. The process of building the map allowed students to critically engage with course material by using visualizations and geographic information as a form of historical argumentation.

The exercise also exposed students to a technology not commonly used in a history classroom. Participants expressed an enthusiasm to use ArcGIS in future assignments or courses, including one student who wrote, “With regards to writing historical research papers that [focus] a lot on specific data, ArcGIS would be an amazing source to back up particular claims within a study.” Another student echoed that message noting, “I would imagine using ArcGIS or another data visualization software as a tool for presenting research to an audience, i.e. giving them something more interesting to look at rather [than] just writing on a page and describing findings using only words.” Though their exposure to ArcGIS Online was brief, students who participated in the ArcGIS Online module and responded to the questionnaire noted an interest in the technology and noted its value in teaching the course content.


After reviewing the participants’ comments, I was struck with the eagerness to use ArcGIS Online more often in the classroom. It became clear throughout the classroom activity, as well as subsequent reviews, that students found the mapping software a helpful tool to learning. As the instructor, I was both affirmed by the comments and curious about the ways that I might be able use student feedback for future course design. For example, I could plan courses with more mapmaking and data visualization as a form of active learning. In this scenario, students would design and build maps with course material with geographic information. By designing individual course modules in this way, I could help students become more familiar with ArcGIS Online and feel emboldened to use the technology in other classes and outside coursework. Additionally, I could imagine providing students with more sustained interaction by using ArcGIS StoryMaps—a related program that integrates images, video, long-form writing, and traditional mapmaking—to design and publish longer histories as a final assignment. Both scenarios allow students to further engage with the mapping software and increase active learning time in the course.

Overall, the responses strengthen the claims of digital humanists who advocate for the use of technology in the classroom (Bonds 2014; Clement 2012; Iantorno 2014; Jakacki 2016; Locke 2017). As many digital humanists argue, the use of new technologies offers an opportunity to diversify curriculum, expand the ways in which students engage with course content, and introduce thoughtful engagement with new digital tools of the twenty-first century. It is my hope that this course module and related student feedback provide a roadmap for educators who wish to incorporate more hands-on and active-learning activities into humanities education. Given the students’ eagerness to engage more with ArcGIS Online, as well as their abilities to envision future applications for the tool, I believe the use of digital mapping tools will enhance student engagement and learning in the humanities classroom.


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Sinha, Gaurev, Thomas A. Smucker, Eric J. Lovell, Kgosietsile Velempini, Samuel A. Miller, Daniel Weiner, and Elizabeth Edna Wangui. 2017. “The Pedagogical Benefits of Participatory GIS for Geographic Education.” Journal of Geography 116, no. 4 (August): 165–179.

About the Author

Camden Burd holds a PhD in History from the University of Rochester. From 2016–2018 he was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities. In 2018, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning at the University of Rochester awarded him a Teaching-as-Research Fellowship to study student reactions to digital technologies in the humanities classroom. He also was named a Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory Scholars Fellow from 2017–2019. Beginning in fall 2020 Burd will begin as an Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Illinois University.

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