U.Va. Students 'VisualEyes' Rotunda History to Bring it Alive

May 30, 2012 — Does history come alive if you can see it?

Students in a University of Virginia spring-semester seminar focused on the Rotunda tried their hand at illustrating history using a computer program to generate images of the early University and the Academical Village.

About 35 people attended a May 8 presentation by the first- and second-year students, who had been analyzing the early life of the Rotunda as part of a University Seminar. After conducting their research, the students worked with the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, or SHANTI, in creating their final presentations using a program called "VisualEyes," a Web-based authoring tool to weave images, maps, charts, video and data into interactive visualizations.

The seminar has been taught for the past three years by Bill Ferster, a senior scientist at the Curry School of Education and the director of SHANTI's VisualEyes project, and Kurtis Schaeffer, a religious studies professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. Past classes produced a digital recreation of the University's first library and explored the impact of the 1895 Rotunda fire. This year, students examined the design, financing, faculty and students of the original Academical Village.

Ferster said the students pursued original research with primary sources, especially documents in the University's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

"This is project-based learning, with some lectures," he said, "but most of the learning comes from researching the primary sources. SHANTI provides a developed visualization program."

Erica Ridgell, a rising third-year math major in the College, said it was difficult to do research while keeping this new format in mind.

"We tended to fall back on our old, comfortable ways of presenting information," she said. "However, as we got closer to the end of the project, the class' imagination began to take off and suddenly, we didn't have time to include even half of our ideas."

She said the students developed a sense of pride in their work.

"I really enjoyed the content of the class," Ridgell said. "And I found it really fascinating that one-dimensional text could be brought to life and tell a story in a more effective way using visualizations."

At the semester-ending presentation, held in the Rotunda's West Oval Room, five groups of students recounted the early years of the Rotunda, displaying on a computer screen maps, reproductions of original documents and interactive models that helped illustrate their points.

One group of students recounted the journey of Francis Walker Gilmer, who helped recruit the University's original faculty, using moving icons on a computer map to show his journey across the Atlantic, through England and onto the European continent. They also showed scans of several of the U.Va. employment contracts the first professors signed.

Another group, investigating the financing of the Academical Village's construction, had sought to lay out the expense, in a simple timeline, but found the records confusing. What they did find, however, allowed them to trace from where and whom Jefferson raised the money for the project.

Ferster praised the students for their adaptability, working with what they were able to uncover.

"When you are doing research, there is no guarantee that you will find what you are looking for," he said. "But they made do with what they had."

Another group broke down from whence the students in the University's first five years had come, with a map of the state showing concentrations of hometowns. They also created charts illustrating which classes the early students had taken and how they spent their leisure time.

In earlier seminars, students illustrated the sources of the books in the original library and which of them survived the 1895 fire.

After the presentations, Ferster said that he had been impressed with the students' performances and how they handled questions from the audience.

"That showed that they knew the material they were presenting," he said.

Ferster said Kurtis approached him about some students who were working with the original U.Va. library card catalog and wanted to see what could be done about bringing it to life through VisualEyes.

"We work well as a team," Ferster said. "Kurtis handles issues around the content and I handle the visualization component, but it's the students that really research and design the final visualization."

Ferster said his goal was to provide computing tools to the University researchers.

"The idea is to use the application to make history more alive and interactive," he said. "We want the student to think more like researchers and give the primary source documents a life beyond Google. There are things that are not digitized yet and we want to take them to people," he said.

VisualEyes, first developed for the Virginia Center for Digital History, makes material publically accessible, viewable and downloadable. Among the SHANTI projects that are available include VisualEyes Yoknapatawpha County, which presents a graphic layout of William Faulkner's fictional county, and "Vinegar Hill: MemoryScape Visualization of a 1960's urban renewal project," which documents the bulldozing of a predominately African-American community in Charlottesville.

"A lot of students want more of a hand in technology, such as this visualization," Ferster said. "The students find data that is reliable and structure it in a visual way.

SHANTI is developing a new tool, the SHANTI Interactive Visualization Application to be released this fall that will make it easier for faculty and students to directly visualize their data without getting lost in the technology.

– by Matt Kelly