Using Technology in History Class

Having been an educator here at Blue Ridge School for the past sixteen years, Matt Bennett has seen the myriad ways in which technology has revolutionized teaching. As his 10th grade Modern European History class started to study the Age of Exploration, Mr. Bennett wanted to highlight that lesson with a compelling project that combined the lessons of history with the technological innovations of today.

Mr. Bennett was particularly fascinated with the “astronauts of the 15th and 16th century,” the early European explorers. While any of us now would pull up Google Maps to verify the fastest route to some locale only minutes away, those intrepid individuals were basically flying blind, basing their judgments on the imperfect renderings of the professional cartographers of the day. The cartographers themselves would sit up in the crow’s nest all day, subject to the whims of the captain or the vicissitudes of the weather, and their productions were anything but precise.

In his two-part project, Mr. Bennett wanted to make a point about the past while arming his students with some useful skills for the 21st century. First, students walked around the Blue Ridge campus and tried to draw an aerial map of what they saw — according to Mr. Bennett, an impossible task. “Being able to see and experience what map-making by hand was like allowed them to put themselves in a scenario from hundreds of years ago much more powerfully than I could have done in the classroom,” Mr. Bennett explained. Nathan Santos commented on the difficulty of doing it by hand, saying “It was crazy! We couldn’t stop moving while we were drawing our maps, like the cartographers of Columbus’ day, and we knew the whole time that we were constantly making mistakes.”

After the drawings were finished, Mr. Bennett teamed up with Mike Burris in the makerspace. Students were taught how to use ArcGIS, a software that allows students to make detailed, intricate maps. “You can label things, add pictures, it’s accurate to within one foot…programs like these are basically making the field of cartography obsolete, much more about computer programming than artistry,” Mr. Bennett said. Amon Johnson mentioned how simple modern technology had made the whole process, saying, “All it took was the simple touch of a button.”

As technology increasingly takes over many “traditional” occupations, Mr. Bennett is committed to exposing his students to more useful platforms in order to develop concrete, transferrable skills. He’s even plotting new ways to do the project again in the future, and next time he wants to see how he can incorporate a drone to get actual aerial footage of Blue Ridge’s campus.

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