Social Education 57(1), 1993,
pp. 8-10
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

A Social Studies Computer Lab

Lawrence Stevens
This week my world history students will be preparing fact sheets about various countries. Two months ago, students used the computer data base to access addresses of embassies. They wrote letters on the computers requesting information and now the material is arriving. Some of it, particularly from poorer countries, is crude. Using this information, students will create their own brochures using a scanner, Superpaint, MS Works, and Pagemaker. They will also incorporate other material into their brochures. Students will work in teams of two or three to accomplish the task.
The U.S. history class will be working on two projects. One group will be producing a short history book on the 1930s that will be translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong-the major language groups represented in the class. The students wrote the text and their parents helped them with the translation. The graphics have been scanned. Now the students must type and assemble the book.

Another group, one whose members have serious reading deficiencies, will be working in a workbook, downloaded from the computer, that is written specifically for their language needs. Their task will be to produce crossword puzzles using Crossword Magic.

The U.S. government class will be operating the computer simulation SimCity as their culminating project for the semester. Again they will work in teams as they develop and manage their city.

The workday starts a little before 7:00Êa.m. By the time the bell rings at 7:25Êa.m., all of the twelve Macintoshes are turned on and students are at work. The teacher is calculating how to schedule classes ranging in size from twenty-four to thirty-nine so that every group has adequate time to finish its project by the end of the week. The world history class goes smoothly; most of the students are familiar with the software. The teacher moves from computer to computer giving advice and helping students correct work.

In the next period, the students working on the history book have encountered problems. Veingkhone has trouble with the Cambodian font. "The manual doesn't tell you what to do," he complains. Phong suggests dropping the Cambodian. "Why don't we just scan it in," Thiem chimes in, "We don't even know if we can load it into Pagemaker." The teacher is uncertain about what to do as he mulls over the problem. "Do what you think is best," he finally offers. They opt for scanning the neatly printed script although Seng Lor offers that "it won't look right." "It is only temporary so that we can get the project done. Let's meet at lunchtime to figure this out," the teacher suggests.

The twelve Macs have become an integral part of social studies classes in the Health Careers Academy at Stagg High School in Stockton, California. The HCA is a school within a school that offers classes in medical terminology and science as well as a core program in English and social studies. Students are expected to learn not only the subject matter but also the use of computers. Social studies classes have been designated as the forum in which we teach students to use computers. World history, U.S. history, and U.S. government/economics are required classes and are taught in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades respectively. Our students also use computers in English and science.

The school district requires a one-semester 10th grade class in computers. The students learn keyboarding in labs equipped with Apple and IBM computers. This limited exposure, however, is not sufficient for the students to acquire proficiency at computer applications.

The social studies classes are organized into projects that require using computers. Teachers spend little time on actual computer operation, instead organizing projects so that the students learn by doing. Students begin with word processing and quickly move to the Superpaint graphics program. As the students work on projects, they are encouraged to use various features of the programs. For example, they learn how to make line and bar graphs at the same time they learn to use object graphics in Superpaint. The students develop map skills at the same time they are learning paint tools in the same program.

Both teachers and students use checklists to keep track of their computer, social studies, and writing skills. Many of the students come from the English as a Second Language program and need to improve their writing skills.

The computers help develop students' confidence. Students who ordinarily struggle with academics acquire a sense of proficiency using a computer. Students who would otherwise resist any sort of criticism do not seem to find suggestions for improvement made at the computer screen difficult to accept. I often hear students ask me to check their work while they have it on the screen, when formerly they would lose their assignments on a regular basis. The computers encourage more individualized student-teacher interaction.

The computers also encourage teamwork and problem solving-students constantly help one another. Some projects have become spectator sports with a cluster of students gathering around a computer and offering the user a variety of suggestions. The traditional pecking order of a class is sometimes overturned in this way.

The students are Latino, African American, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Hmong, and European American. The computers provide a common bridge across these cultures. If students had a small-group discussion to decide on the ten most important ideas, people, and events of the 1930s, very few would participate. Asking them to prepare a computer book about the decade generates a rather lively discussion. Should Huey Long and the Share the Wealth movement be included? How can we describe the New Deal in just fifty words? With computers, discussions take a practical turn: What kind of graphic should we use to symbolize public works projects? Do we have a good picture of Huey Long? Can we use something else? What?

Integrating computers with social studies instruction has obvious benefits, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, it is expensive. Our computer lab contains twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment. We assembled it over several years from at least three different grants. We purchased some of the software through candy sales. The lab is in constant use and five different teachers share it, although social studies classes use it 75 percent of the time.

Pedagogical problems also arise on computers. The system has no electronic drill programs. We use productivity software almost exclusively. MS Works, Superpaint, and Pagemaker form the software core of the program. We also use simulations such as SimCity, Tom Snyder simulations, and those we have developed using Hypercard. Using productivity software encourages creativity and problem solving. It enables students to control the computer and the output. It encourages active, rather than passive, learning.

The key in integrating computers and social studies instruction is the projects' design. We encourage students to make choices among important and less important ideas, events, and information and to visualize how they can effectively illustrate a topic or create the graphics that will enhance the presentation of a topic. We suggest that they select the ten most important things everyone should know about this country or ask them what characteristics differentiate this country or culture from other countries or cultures.

As for graphics, we use prompts such as the following: "create a graphic that represents something unique about this country for the cover of the report"; and "each event, person, or thing must have a graphic that represents the topic." We maintain a collection of projects for other teachers to use.

Some productivity programs, such as Pagemaker and Superpaint, require a fair amount of exposure before students become comfortable with them. Although it is easy to get students started on the Macintosh computers, to answer the myriad of questions that arise, the teacher must have considerable information on and knowledge about computers. We have solved part of the problem by developing tip sheets for teachers and students to handle routine problems.

The history department has recently purchased a Macintosh computer for its teachers. Teachers will be able to use it in the classroom for single-computer classroom simulations and take it home so they can familiarize themselves with a variety of programs. Next year, the department will buy an overhead display unit to project the computer screen so an entire class can see it. The system is not networked. Each computer has a hard disk and all are connected to a laser printer. With each computer having its own hard disk, students have powerful programs such as Pagemaker at their command. It also allows each computer to contain a variety of resources such as clip art, maps, data bases, and an electronic encyclopedia.

The students will know something about history and government when they leave this program. In addition, they will know how to use a word processor, a graphics program, a spread sheet, and a data base, and will know how to combine these elements in a page layout program. These are practical skills that will serve them well in college and in many jobs. The local community college that most of our students will attend houses a networked system of more than four hundred Macintoshes. At some point in the future the college will probably offer classes via the Macintosh system.

At lunchtime a few of the computers are still occupied by government students who want to see if they can increase their voter approval rating in SimCity, the "brain trust" from U.S. history class assembles to ponder the problem of the Cambodian font and the Great Depression with an ESL aide, and students who want to finish their projects occupy the other computers.

The bell rings and a new class filters in. At 3:30 p.m., an hour and a half after school lets out, the teacher moves around the room shutting down computers and collecting rejected versions of the students' work for the recycling box. The teacher is not thinking about how to motivate students; teachers who use the lab do not have that problem. The teacher scribbles a few notes about who has finished and who is most eager to get started the next day. He sees one of the fact sheets from an African country and notices that a memo attached to it is signed by an embassy official. He adds to his list a note to send the official a copy of the students' work on the country and wonders what response it might bring.

Lawrence Stevens is a history teacher at the Health Careers Academy of A. A. Stagg High School in Stockton, California 95207.