Making History Come Alive
March 19, 2012
By Jenny Morgan, staff writer for the Center for Community Engagement; edited by the Public Affairs staff
Like any good history course, “Immigrant City”—which focuses on nearby Holyoke, Mass.—requires its participants to immerse themselves in their research. But this semester, the class is taking this directive to another level: Students are using what they’re learning to create an interactive computer game that allows users to explore simulations of the city throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
“In general, I like to get people out of the classroom, to make history come alive,” explained Amherst’s Frank Couvares, the E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies. “Immigrant City” is co-taught by Couvares and Mark Clinton, professor of political science at Holyoke Community College (HCC), and both Amherst and HCC students are enrolled in it.
The Holyoke Dam, today (Katherine Berry ’12)
The project is possible thanks to support from an Engaged Scholarship Initiative grant from Amherst’s Center for Community Engagement.
Couvares first developed the idea for the course last year as he brainstormed ideas for a new history seminar “I wanted to do something in urban history, and I used to teach labor history. So I start[ed] thinking about Holyoke.”
As Couvares began preparing the course, Ben Lieber, dean of academic support and student research at Amherst, approached him with the idea of collaborating with HCC. Couvares agreed, and he quickly discovered that he and Clinton were “simpatico.”
Then Scott Payne, director of Amherst’s Academic Technology Services, entered the mix, bringing the idea of using actual historical data to create a simulated environment.
A dozen students from both colleges meet weekly, rotating between the Amherst campus and the HCC campus. For both Couvares and Clinton, the course is as much about the collaborative process between all of the participants as it is about the historical research. “I want the opportunity for Holyoke Community College students and Amherst College students to not just be in the same class but in the same research teams,” Couvares said. Students from the two schools work as partners throughout the semester, choosing research topics, working in teams and putting their data into the computer software.
The Holyoke Dam, 1900 (Wistariahurst Museum
They also dive into historical materials and spend time discovering the city of Holyoke in order to develop the computer simulation game. “A part of [this] history seminar is archival research, but also we want to emphasize the physical landscape of Holyoke. [Students] map out neighborhoods and landscapes of the city and show it changing over time,” Couvares explained, adding, “I want to get students into the city as a space in time—not just people in time, but a space that has people in time.”
And while the primary goal of creating the simulation game has been to engage the class’s participants in history in a new way, ultimately the entire community will be able to benefit from it, said Couvares: When finished, the educational game will belong to HCC and the Holyoke Public Library and will be available to anyone who wants it.
For Couvares, who had never been involved in such a project, it’s been quite a ride: “It’s a thrill to watch it all unfold.”