More than a Map

Map of Europe with countries in different shades of purple, with green shapes coming out of Ukraine

Maps have the potential to add new layers to the telling of even the most well-known history. 

For example, the impacts of the infamous Chernobyl disaster become more apparent when one can visualize the ripple effect of nuclear policy changes in Europe after the catastrophe. Pitt’s Digital Atlas Design Internship teaches students to translate their interests in history into these kinds of visually expressive stories, using maps as the medium to share them. 

The program, offered through Pitt’s World History Center, provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to engage in open-ended historical research employing the use of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, technology. GIS is computer software that can analyze and present spatial data, including such familiar uses as GPS navigation and the COVID-19 maps widely shown in the news. 

Want to learn more?

Explore all of the Digital Atlas Internship projects on the program’s website

And check out these stories from the Pittwire archives to learn more about GIS technology and its uses around the University. 

The Digital Atlas Design Internship is part class and part large project. The class was created by Ruth Mostern, director of the World History Center, and Ryan Horne, now Sinai Manuscripts Digital Library Data and Metadata Coordinator at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2017. Its current instructor, Susan Grunewald, is a digital world history postdoctoral fellow at the World History Center. She said that the program teaches “a lot more than just making a map.” Students have weekly check-ins with faculty mentors and develop weekly goals to hit as they develop their projects. Students from many majors have participated.

Grunewald uses GIS in her own research, which focuses on prisoner of war camps in the former Soviet Union, and she first developed interest in the technology during her doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She said that gaining proficiency in GIS can help students learn to get better at asking questions and at conducting analysis of the past, especially when applying a contemporary technology to historical inquiry. 

Drew Medvid (A&S ’19), author of the Chernobyl project, took the class in 2019, and “had zero experience with GIS prior to the internship.” He said he enjoyed learning how to use the technology and learning more about his fellow interns’ research projects, deepening his own studies in history and political science. 

Students taking this course have analyzed a variety of topics, ranging from the construction of Brazil’s capital city to a historical look at the Oneida nation, the Nationality Rooms and their connection immigration patterns and all manner of projects in between, reflecting the many interests of students in the humanities at Pitt.

Grunewald believes that GIS and other high tech ways of conducting historical analysis could become more standard features of history curricula as more people are exposed to these techniques and they become more accepted in scholarship. 

While these techniques were met with skepticism at first, the field increasingly trends toward using them in conjunction with traditional methods, she said. 

Grunewald added: “It only makes sense to incorporate more technological methods when teaching students raised in a digital generation.” 

This story was written by Justin P. Jones, a student reporter for Pittwire.

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