Social Education 59(1), 1995, pp. 38-46
National Council for the Social Studies

The Riddle of Amelia Earhart: Biographical Study and Hypothesis Testing

Timothy H. Little
Some time ago, a popular daily cartoon (Mother Goose & Grimm) featured a character looking at a milk carton on the side panel of which appeared a picture of a woman aviator replete with goggles and leather flying cap. The caption on the carton read "Amelia Earhart." The cartoon figure's comment? "Hey...How old is this milk?" Significantly, when shown the cartoon, students invariably laugh long and hard. That today's students would be familiar with an individual who disappeared more than fifty years ago suggests that Amelia Earhart has become a part of our collective cultural memory.
The pioneer aviator holds an ongoing fascination for students. The exercise described here dealing with her disappearance is one of a series of model, computer-based units that I have developed focusing on significant individuals in the American past. Although the sample lessons presented are not all that complex, the exercise presumes that users will have had some prior experiences working with databases and spreadsheets.

Why has Ms. Earhart so captivated succeeding generations? Why is she a subject worthy of study by students? It seems to me that the answers to the first question provide the answer to the second. Why the captivation? Let's begin with the obvious. Amelia Earhart disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and everyone loves a mystery. Add to this the fact that Ms. Earhart was one of the relatively few women active in a field, early aviation, that was itself inherently fascinating. Then there is the matter of her aerial accomplishments themselves. A casual count of her "flying firsts" exceeds 15!

For all of the above, however, Ms. Earhart embodied a trait that endeared her, then and now, to Americans: pluck! Amelia "lived her life on the edge"... "she pushed the envelope"; these are contemporary words for the quality of person that Amelia described in one of her published poems titled "Courage." One line of that poem reads "Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace." Amelia had much to teach Americans by example in 1937; she has much to teach us today.

Unit Objectives
This article includes the following:

1.A set of instructional plans for teaching an Earhart unit
2.A procedural flowchart that can be used by teachers to develop their own original "History Mystery" units
3.An introduction to the cross-application utility of Microsoft Works as a teaching tool
The "Riddle of Amelia Earhart" unit presents students with a mystery to solve, while at the same time providing them with a wide range of immediately accessible data with which to address the problem of the aviator's disappearance. These data can be stored in a conventional database and/or provided to students as hard copy. These pieces of the puzzle enable students to address the following questions about the pioneer flyer.

1.What is the range of hypotheses that has been advanced in explanation of her disappearance?

2.How does each of the identified "disappearance hypotheses" measure up in terms of available evidence?
In the "Earhart" unit, the microcomputer, loaded with Microsoft Works, is used to provide students with the following:
(a)A comprehensive and expandable source of evidentiary data (the database)
(b)A means of sorting and analyzing the data (the database template)
(c)A systematic means of selecting the most probable disappearance hypothesis based on the data analysis (a spreadsheet-based decision-making program)
(d)A means of graphically displaying the output of the decision-making program (the chart function of the Works spreadsheet).

Student Objectives for the Unit
Both content and process student outcomes are included in the unit.

A. Content Objectives
Students will become aware of:

1.The fragility of the technological envelope within which we live daily
2.The speed with which technology makes today's bold and pioneering adventure tomorrow's commonplace activity
3.The pluck and derring-do that American pioneers in aviation have displayed
4.The independent life-style carved out by a woman in the 1920s and 1930s

B. Process Objectives
Students will:
1.Practice reasoning skills by analyzing the Earhart mystery
2.Assess the available hypotheses regarding the Earhart disappearance in terms of:
(a) Hard evidence
(b) Inferential evidence
(c) Counter-evidence
(d) Missing pieces of data that would confirm/discredit a given explanation

Topic and Grade Level Suitability
"The Riddle of Amelia Earhart: Biographical Study and Hypothesis Testing" unit is primarily designed for use in U.S. History and/or American Studies classes, although it might be appropriate fare for classes in World History as well.

Regarding grade level suitability, the activities presented are not beyond the capabilities of students enrolled in the common middle school U.S. History course. The sophistication of the user, however, is the prime determinant of the level of analysis that can be carried out with the template. The model should be quite capable of challenging students enrolled in the high school versions of the classes cited above.

Classroom Formats for Using the Earhart Unit
The unit can be readily adapted to a range of teaching settings including the following.

Computer Lab/Media Center. Students may work in groups at individual terminals. Cooperative learning groups are assigned to tackle the problem and then compare results obtained when each team runs its version of options and ratings.

One-Computer Classroom. Using a large-screen monitor or an LCD panel/overhead projector, students can discuss and debate alternatives and ratings for entry.

Unit Flowchart: Teaching Overview
A procedural chart including recommended topics/activities for each of the five days of the Earhart unit is provided to the right.

Teaching Recommendations and Support Materials
Recommended teaching strategies and computer applications, as well as requisite student handouts for the unit, are described below:

Day 1. The first task for the instructor is to introduce the problem (bait the intellectual hook!) and to give students an overview of the work that they will be doing in the next several days. Handout #1, reproduced on the next page, is designed to accomplish both of these purposes.

In order to give students additional background to the Earhart mystery, I would strongly recommend that the instructor divide them into groups and provide each group with a copy of The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell (1989). In their groups, they should collectively read/discuss Appendix C titled "The Earhart Disappearance Theories" in the book. The goal of their reading should be to acquire a sense of the range of the explanations put forward to account for Amelia's fate. They might be asked to specifically consider each theory in terms of the following:

1.Whether Earhart landed or crashed.
2.The cause of her disappearance.
3.Her ultimate personal fate.
Prior to the initiation of the Earhart unit, or at the very least prior to Day 3 of the unit, students and/or the teacher should read through Appendix C and create a database that incorporates and classifies the Earhart data provided therein. (A template for the entry of these data is provided later in the text.)

Day 2. The focus of the second day of the Earhart exercise is a whole class

discussion in which the range of disappearance hypotheses is first systematically organized and is then winnowed down to the four or five most likely hypotheses to be investigated, using the database/decision-making applications of Works.

In organizing the disappearance theories, it may help to chart them on the board or the overhead. They can be organized around the variables of "landed/crashed, cause of the landing/crash, and Amelia's personal fate." Such a chart appears above.

Day 3. Here is where the computer enters as an instructional device. Re-forming in their investigatory teams, students are asked to examine each of the targeted disappearance theories in light of the information contained in the Earhart database. Specifically, students will be asked to use the database to determine the amount of evidence in support of each theory classified by the following scheme.

A.Factual evidence.
B.Inferential evidence.
D.Missing pieces of data that would tend to confirm or deny a given hypothesis.
A sample worksheet format that can be used by the students to collect and record their analysis of each hypothesis is reproduced on the next page.

If sufficient microcomputers exist for each group to have extended access to its own machine, student collective responses can be word processed onto the worksheets and printed out. If the room is limited to one microcomputer, then the students should use the worksheets as hard copy and limit their time at the machine to running data sorts on the database.

One of the keys to the exercise, of course, is the existence of a user-friendly database. In order to maintain student enthusiasm for the project, the database should have three qualities. It should provide students with the following:

1.A simple method of sorting data into the types of evidence called for on the worksheets, such as "factuaquot; data versus "inferentiaquot; data.
2.Quick access to sorting information by variables key to the investigation such as "espionage" or "fate."
3.Large amounts of information for few keystrokes.
A database template that hopefully meets the criteria cited is provided on page 43.

Limitations of space obviously preclude the inclusion of my existing full database on Amelia Earhart within this article. Given the data entry template mentioned above, however, and equipped with copies of the Lovell book, interested teachers or students can construct their own version of the Earhart evidence database. It has also been my experience that class creation of an original database, followed by class use of that database, is an excellent means of motivating students for the investigatory stage of the exercise.

In the sample database field shown, student investigators are presented with some data about "a woman flier" from the mouth of one Mr. Jibambam. Search keys that will call up this particular record of information include a "Y" to the fields of "Espionage", "Destination", and "Fate." These data are also accessed if students enter an "H" in the field labeled "First hand vs. Hearsay" as well as an "I" in the field labeled "Fact vs. Inference." As students work their way through the various questions posed on the worksheets, they have flexible access to data records that they can sort and call up on screen (or print) based on a wide variety of criteria. For example, students using my version of the database discover early on that if they call up all of the data records that are marked by a "Y" in the search field "Fate," they will be presented with a large amount of information. If, however, they ask the computer to deliver up all of the records that pertain to Ms. Earhart's fate but are also coded as "F"-factual, as opposed to inferential-the number of records that appear is cut dramatically. Students' ability to sort, group, and re-group the information that is available to them according to their own wishes represents one of the more fascinating aspects of the exercise.

Day 4. Someone once said that the reason to keep an open mind is to eventually snap it shut on something. Day 4 calls on students to examine all of the data on Ms. Earhart from as many database perspectives as they wish and then to "snap shut" on the hypothesis that appears to be the most likely explanation for Ms. Earhart's disappearance.

To help students reach a systematic conclusion regarding the "best" hypothesis, a simple decision-making program is used. Students are asked to assess the evidence available for each disappearance hypothesis. Specifically, they are asked to rate three dimensions of the evidence for a given hypothesis: location of the plane, causation of the disappearance, and the ultimate fate of Ms. Earhart. Students are assisted in this endeavor by a very primitive spreadsheet decision-making program that sums the scores for the hypotheses on each of the three dimensions. 1

After reviewing the database evidence, the investigatory teams rate each dimension, using the following scale from 1 to 5 (very convincing = 4 or 5, convincing = 3, barely convincing = 1 or 2). The spreadsheet sums the scores for each hypothesis, and the students are presented with the numerically preferred hypothesis. A hypothetical "run" of the rating process and the numerical outcome for that "run" appears on page 44. The student-generated dimension scores are entered on lines 19, 24, and 29. The summed scores are generated on line 34. Given the data entered into this hypothetical run of the spreadsheet, the numerically preferred hypothesis would be #4, with a total score of 11. Accordingly, in this hypothetical run of the decision-making process shown below, the preferred hypothesis would hold that Ms. Earhart landed successfully on Howland Island, changed her identity, and disappeared to live a new life.

(table follows, Please see print issue)
4 SCALE: VERY CONVINCING 4 CONVINCING 3 BARELY CONV. 1**********************************************
# 3HYPO.
22EVIDENCE RE CAUSE23CAUSATION SCORE24123425***************************************************
26********************************************27EVIDENCE RE FATE28FATE SCORE291233.530***************************************************
# 3HYPO.
# 3HYPO.
34 is formula in b34 is formula in c34 is form. in d3443******************************************************

(end of table)

The computed spreadsheet itself is less than visually thrilling as a motivator for students. This can be changed by using the Chart function in Works. With little more effort than it takes to respond to several prompts, the spreadsheet output can be converted into graphic form using the Chart application, which is an integral part of the spreadsheet program in Works. A range of graphing formats are available to the user, including bar graphs, line graphs, and stacked graphs. The hypothetical decision shown numerically in the spreadsheet above takes on a whole new appearance when transformed by the Chart application into a graphic.

After examining and discussing the spreadsheet results of their decision making, group members are asked to prepare a summary worksheet of their conclusions. A facsimile of that worksheet appears above. A portion of the discussion should be devoted to the limitations, as well as the advantages, of number-based decision making.

Day 5. Each of the investigatory groups presents its conclusions to the rest of the class. Teams are encouraged to present those findings to the rest of the class using their summary worksheets and, when appropriate, Works word-processing, databasing, and spreadsheeting capabilities.

Depending on teacher/student preferences, the class at large is then asked to vote on either or both of the following questions:

1. Which investigatory team presented the most logical case for its conclusions?
2. Which Earhart disappearance hypothesis appears to be the most likely to be true in light of existing evidence?
In the spirit of the Earhart unit, results of the class-voting activities should, of course, be graphed and presented to the class.

Next Steps
Since the original Amelia exercise was created, I have been experimenting with Hypermedia. Specifically, HyperCard and QuickTime movies have been used in the creation of a prototype for a Hypermedia series to be titled "HyperCase Studies in American Culture." These units are designed for use in U.S. History classrooms in which a premium is placed on teaching reasoning skills to students. With the programming collaboration of Scott Turner, a doctoral student at Michigan State University, I have completed a model unit titled "A Case Study in Frontier History," which was presented at the NCSS Annual Meeting in Phoenix in November 1994. The prototype is a computerized mock trial of the hearing held after the gunfight at the OK Corral during which the Earps and Doc Holiday were examined regarding their use of "deadly force" in the famous shootout.

The use of QuickTime movies permits the creation of a self-propelled instructional unit, which at the same time encourages students to construct their own "mental maps" for navigating the data available for them to process. Unlike the Works version of case studies, which requires that the teacher move continually from overhead transparencies to loading a database file to loading a spreadsheet file and returning to the word processing mode, the HyperCard version of the case studies is seamless. Everything is built into one HyperCard stack, including the following:

1.The unit overview and outline.
2.Necessary "electronic data analysis sheets."
3.The instructional steps and information/transition screens to be completed each day.
4.The unit database.
5.The unit decision-making spreadsheet.
6.Final assessment activities.
Once loaded, the "Case Study" is ready to be run in a one-computer classroom with either an LCD panel or a VCR monitor. The teacher controls the pace of the instruction, while the students are in control of how, which, and in what order data to be analyzed are accessed. For example, in the OK Corral hearing, students can access some or all of the witnesses' testimony, sorting for any of a large number of variables such as "Who Shot First?" or "Pro-Earp Witnesses." Witness biographies and testimony are presented in "baseball card" format, with photos and "vital statistics" for each participant. Contiguously, students are able to import QuickTime movies showing various film versions of what happened on that cold October day in Tombstone.

The next scheduled unit to undergo the Hypermedia instructional upgrade treatment will be the Amelia unit described above. Application of Hypermedia and QuickTime movie techniques to the Amelia unit will permit us to greatly enhance both the instructional sophistication and the appeal of the original unit. For example, one of the hypotheses regarding the cause of Amelia's disappearance holds that she was flying in an exhausted state, and her judgment was therefore impaired during her final flight into oblivion. Operating within the original instructional framework of the Microsoft Works Database/Spreadsheet version of Amelia, this was a difficult hypothesis for which to provide evidentiary data. Enter Hypermedia. In the upgraded version of the Earhart exercise, students will be able seamlessly to call up close-range film footage of Amelia as she climbed into her Lockheed Electra at the beginning of her journey, as well as film shot of her climbing aboard her aircraft in the latter stage of her trip on the eve of her fatal flight. The students, therefore, will be able to use the film clips as part of the evidence to be interpreted as they seek to determine the role of the "exhaustion" hypothesis in Amelia's loss.

As envisioned, the upgraded Amelia unit will also permit students to call up film clips of various investigators to explain and to argue in person for their disparate theories of her disappearance. Condensed/edited clips of Hollywood's contributions to the explanation of the Earhart mystery are also targeted for QuickTime movie treatment.

In sum, HyperCard/QuickTime technology represents a new universe of instructional options for materials development in the social studies. It is a universe at the same time intriguing and daunting for teachers. Is the instructional payoff worth the cost in time and effort expended by individual instructors who choose to experiment? The jury is still out, but preliminary results are encouraging.

1 The addition algorithm is so elementary, in fact, that teachers may wish simply to use the spreadsheet template as a worksheet and to ask students to rate and score each of the disappearance hypotheses under consideration with paper and pencil. Teachers anxious to explore more complex decision-making models using spreadsheets should contact the author: versions are available that permit users to weigh dimensions of a decision differentially, as well as to interpolate assessments of probability into the decision algorithm.References
Lovell, Mary S. The Sound of Wings. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.Timothy H. Little teaches in the Department of Teacher Education in the College of Education, 343A Erickson Hall, Michigan State University, Lansing, Michigan 48824. He is very interested in readers' reactions to the Earhart unit and asks that bouquets, brickbats, and suggestions for other novel microcomputer applications be communicated to him by mail or by phone at 517-355-4501. This article incorporates material and analysis that have also been published by the author in an article with the same title in a Michigan newsletter for computer users, The MACUL Newsletter.