UW-Stout News Story

Associate professor develops online history tours

August 22, 2012

What’s the best way to research the Civil War or simply learn a little more about it? A traditional source, like the local library to use a history book or encyclopedia, is always a good choice.

Kate Thomas

 With modern technology, plenty of other options are available, including a new one that a University of Wisconsin-Stout associate professor has helped create. Kate Thomas, an associate professor of history, has written and developed five interactive American history tours for W. W. Norton, the national book publisher.

W.W. Norton tours use Google Earth to give history a whole new look. In a Civil War Battles tour created by Thomas, for example, students can pick the virtual spot where a battle happened and click to find pictures and primary documents for that battle.
Produced by W.W. Norton Study Space through the program America, A Narrative History, the tours are designed to trace “historical developments across time, touching down on locations vital to our nation's heritage and development. Points of interest in each tour launch primary and multimedia sources.”

Using a Google Earth tour is something like riding a globe. Within a tour, each event is named on the globe and marked with a thumbtack. By clicking on the thumbtack the information and photos appear. By moving the mouse and adjusting the magnifier tool, a visitor can move at dizzying speed around the world.

Along with Civil War Battles, Thomas created tours called: Mixed-Heritage Peoples; The Right to Vote: American Women's Suffrage; Highways and Suburbs; and soon to be uploaded Trails and Trading. Visitors to the site may choose from a total of 14 tours.

The opportunity for Thomas to design tours came about in an interesting manner. She had used the company’s online quizzes for students and reported to the editor when she found errors. Her eagle eye was commended, and she was offered consulting projects. One such project involved developing the online history tours.
“I knew right away that the Google Earth history tours would be fantastic for my students here at UW-Stout,” she said. Thomas teaches with primary documents, and the tours add an online component to her assignments. “I jumped at the opportunity,” she said.
Retired UW-Stout history and geography assistant professor Frank Kennett visited the site and went on two of Thomas’ tours. “It took me a while to learn to navigate the system, but it was fun,” he said. “The tour system seems useful to me, a good learning tool.”
Kennett said Thomas’ segments were well-done and recommended the site as an interactive learning tool.

The free tours are used as supplements for undergraduate students, but since the website is public they are available to anyone if they download Google Earth first.

Thomas knows that her book club, for example, will find the tours helpful. “I’ve recommended them to my friends, especially in my women’s book club because they are always asking me history questions and always want more information. They are an inquisitive bunch,” Thomas said.

For each location Thomas provides an overview of what happened there and a linked primary document, either written or visual. “I try to provide both so the viewer can get a sense of what things looked like at the time as well as what people were saying at that time,” she said.

Each tour includes 10 locations, 10 primary documents, a map and, at the end, five analytical questions to test comprehension. The questions — some easy, some difficult — are designed to focus on change.

“I want the viewer to think about how we can all get involved to make changes in our country. I think the best way of doing that is to show how people successfully made changes in the past. It should be an educational experience, much different than just random trivia that you’ll get when you Google a historical event,” Thomas said.

Thomas wrote the introductions and set the scene for each location in her tours. She combed through hundreds of sources, especially the Library of Congress and National Archives.

She also decided what to include and developed the discussion questions per tour.

Some basics are always covered in U.S. history, and those threshold concepts determined maybe five of the 10 stops on each tour, Thomas said. As a teacher her focus is to ensure that students know the U.S. is a nation of diverse peoples.
She strives to teach this through her choices of tour events. In the tour Mixed-Heritage History, she provides details of how diversity started from the time that European men first set foot on what was to become America and “interacted” with American Indian women.
Those first immigrants also brought slaves with them who ran away to live with Indians or were forced to “interact” with the colonizers. “Right there, nine months after the first European men landed in the Americas, there was even greater diversity,” she said.

All of her tours are grounded in the history of diversity and different points of view to fully represent U.S. history. “For the Civil War Battles tour, for example, I used many of the typical battles, but I also included American Indians and African-Americans who fought and changed the trajectory of the war. I included places where Harriet Tubman carried out spy missions for the Union Army. That’s my contribution to these tours — to show how we all had a role to play. It’s why I hope Norton chose me to write these five tours,” Thomas said.
Thomas has taught history in the social science department at UW-Stout since 2003.

To go on a tour, download Google Earth and go to www.wwnorton.com/college/history/america8/full/historytours.aspx.

View all news items