The offices of the US Census are closed, and their website is basically not working at the moment as a result. But I found a way to teach the 7th graders about spreadsheets today, using data from the 1790 census. You could do it too!
Each kid in the 7th grade American history class is writing a report about one colony in America in 1760: New Jersey, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and so on. I had each student get the broad-based census information from their state in 1790, and I’ve taught them how to use a spreadsheet program to generate a 4% decline in population from year to year, backwards into colonial times and 1760. We had to do the mathematics for the 4% compound-interest decline with brute computing force, assigning each row of 30 columns to a year — I’m not that proficient mathematically to set up a 4% compound-interest problem for 30 years years, alas! — but we’re working out the data.
We then estimated that the broad categories of population available in the 1790 census would remain the same from year to year — adult white males over 16, adult white males under 16, all women, other free persons, and slaves. These are dastardly categories if you’re interested in racial justice. And frankly, the data we generated is garbage — nowhere in the world experiences 4% growth or decline anywhere, ever, while holding true to the specific categories assigned in the census in a given year. But the numbers are still a damn sight better than a WAG (wild-assed guess).
And in the meantime, students are getting to use a spreadsheet, and learning how to work from a data set over time. The history teacher is thrilled. While the students are currently suffering from the technological challenges of doing mathematics horizontally and vertically simultaneously, and challenged by the concept of formulae operating off of cell values rather than variables… Wow. A big computing hurdle is being cleared, one digital jumper at a time.
I’ve said before in this series of posts on teaching computer science, that “Digital Native” doesn’t mean what we think it means. It means “A person who was born after the widespread distribution of personal computing power,” and it doesn’t mean, “person who understands how to use computers naturally.” All these skills have to be TAUGHT, in the same way as we who grew up before computers’ wide availability learned them.