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Helping Students Visualize History

Scott and Kim Martin

Signature Course professor Erika Bsumek has collaborated with a University of Texas at Austin laboratory to create a new way for students to visualize history. Bsumek worked with UT’s Simulation and Game Applications Lab and developer Matt O’Hair to produce an online, interactive, timeline tool called ClioVis: Visualizing Historical Connections.

“I do a lot of group projects and try to give my students a lot of creative assignments,” Bsumek explained. “While the projects were great, they didn’t serve the purpose I was hoping they would. I noticed that students were struggling to figure out the big overarching themes of the class.” That’s where ClioVis is helpful—the tool allows users to chart and connect historical events, which helps students better understand the “how” and “why” associated with the repercussions.

Through her work with ClioVis, Bsumek, an associate professor of history and instructor for the Signature Course “The Land Before Us,” encourages student learning and engagement with history. “Every class I walk into that’s a required history course, thirty percent of the students are bummed they have to be there,” she said. “How do you get students engaged, excited, and making their own connections? We can come up with technologies that help people learn, think critically, and understand complex ideas.”

Bsumek discovered her passion and future field of study the same way many students do in the School of Undergraduate Studies. “I started off as an art major at the University of Utah and by my sophomore year I had wandered out of the art department and ended up taking several history courses with some really interesting professors,” she explained.

Drawn to history’s creative potential, Bsumek was able to explore how her family history intersected with larger historical patterns and themes, eventually leading her to investigate the impact of assimilationist policies on native peoples in Utah. After completing her bachelor’s in history from the University of Utah, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University. Bsumek came to The University of Texas at Austin after teaching at UT El Paso.

“[Getting this professorship] was like winning the lottery. I felt really lucky to be here,” she said. “We have amazing students as well as amazing diversity in our student body. We have students who come from border towns in El Paso, students from Dubai, those from Corpus Christi, from Austin; we all get to come together and know each other and the place we’re at.”