Data Sets for Inquiry-Based Learning

Keywords: pedagogy, inquiry, data sets, census, maps

Fact-or-Fiction Scenarios

In August 2017, at the Digital Pedagogy Institute, I saw an excellent presentation–“Fact-or-Fiction Scenarios as Tools for Project-Based Learning in Upper-Year Economic Geography Courses,” by Jeff Boggs of Brock University. Below I summarize his model and then describe some possible applications using various open data sets.

Boggs described group projects done in class that challenged students to use selected data sets to verify targeted statements. These “fact-or-fiction scenarios” push students to analyze data and discuss their findings with each other before sharing out to the class. These focused statements seem especially suitable for beginning students with less background with theories and data. Boggs’ examples included: “Niagara’s biggest problem is its loss of talented youth to Alberta” and “At least with Niagara, ‘neighborhood is destiny’ when it comes to school test scores.” Discussion at the session focused on whether students should be guided to use a specific data set or left to research the topics on their own. This practice of researching, analyzing, and presenting findings was framed as a set of job skills that one might use in consulting.

This approach seems like an excellent alternative to my current practices. Typically I ask open-ended, essay-type questions when presenting students with sources. Recently an in-class assignment read, “Read over these primary source documents. According to the pamphlet, how does Harry Hopkins describe the purpose of Social Security?” I’m open to trying this alternative model of propositions that can be verified during a single class session.

Open Data Sets

Boston Open Data – A range of data sets for more advanced users, but also the “showcase” items feature data that has already been formatted as a visualization: Trash City, Climate Ready.

The United States Census: Interactive Maps, Data Visualizations.

Social Explorer – historical census data has been georeferenced for easy mapping. Below are some tips for using Social Explorer.

In order to save and export images or files, you will need to create an identity; for analysis alone, no need to log in. There is a premium version one can pay for that allows full features.

  1. Click on Start Now
  2. Skip the tour
  3. Upper left: Change Data button—various types of data are available

This site has limitations, including the fact that some key census areas are in the premium area. Also, the limitations posed by the census itself remain. The 1890 census, for instance, burned in a fire. Also, data was not aggregated at the census tract level before 1940. Census data before that time is useful for macro-level questions, but not for more localized topics. Keep in mind that the questions posed vary from census to census, as do the boundaries of census tracts, limiting some direct comparisons.

Despite these limitations, much can be seen about employment, home ownership, income and racial demographics, especially in 1940 and later.

After mapping data, you may wish to create a side-by-side comparison or a slider using the icon at the bottom center of the screen. These tools allow visualization of change over time.

Sample Activities

Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 1952: Fact-or-fiction: Harlem was segregated in 1940/1960. How did Ellison describe the area and its residents? Does his description reflect the census data? Fact-or-fiction: Harlem is just as segregated by race and class today as it was in 1940.

Crash, 2004: Fact-or-fiction: Los Angeles was not segregated by race and class in 2000. Most residents of the San Gabriel Valley were Latino. Residents of Arcadia are highly educated.