Social Studies Programs Connect the Past and Present

Ask a group of kids what they did in school today and don't be surprised if some say they battled against Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, panned for gold in the Yukon Territory, or visited the ancient ruins of Pompeii. Such claims would have been dismissed as figments of their imagination a few years ago. However, a new generation of social studies software allows students of all ages to travel to distant places without getting their sh'es dirty.

In fact, educators can find instructional programs addressing a wide range of topics relating to history, geography and world cultures. This article describes some of the latest CD-ROMs, videodiscs and videotapes appropriate for social studies classrooms, pointing out common threads and emerging trends.

For Young Explorers

First, several publishers have created products for the early learning community, usually by weaving basic social studies concepts into colorful puzzles and games. In Creative Wonders' Schoolhouse Rock: America Rock!, children complete simple activities that challenge their knowledge of American history, geography and government. Success in each activity earns a stamp of approval for Bill, the main character, whose goal is to reach Capitol Hill.

For a slightly older crowd, Adventure Time from McGraw-Hill School Interactive teaches those in grades 3-6 to place historical events in proper sequence, construct and interpret visuals, and locate and gather information. Third graders begin by examining the concept of local community, while sixth graders learn why people have settled in various regions of the world. Adventure Time sells in single units, lab packs of five copies for one grade level, and school packs of one copy for each grade level.

Recognizing the unique needs of educational customers, more publishers have customized programs by adding teacher resource materials. The school edition of Broderbund's Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? comes in a sturdy three-ring binder that holds the software, user's guide, teacher's guide and a bonus book, Our 50 States. Developed specifically for classroom integration, the package contains lesson plans, reproducible student pages and bibliographies. In the program, students chase Carmen and her gang through all 50 states and the District of Columbia as they try to recover the nation's stolen treasures.

A number of other titles take youngsters on virtual trips across the United States. Co-produced by HarperKids' Interactive and Morgan Interactive, Morgan's Adventures in Colonial America revolves around a scavenger hunt to rescue the Declaration of Independence. A similar package designed for ages 8-14, Lawrence Production's Discovering America puts one in the sh'es of a European explorer who has just arrived at America's shore.

In Discovery Channel Multimedia's SkyTrip America, kids fly from past to present in a magical vehicle, touching down upon Plymouth Rock when the Pilgrims arrived, Lexington and Concord during the battles of 1775, San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and countless other notable places. Travelers will meet Harriet Tubman, an activist in the "underground railroad," Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and Cesar Chavez, a leader of migrant workers, among others.

Beyond Rote Memorization

Instead of memorizing facts, most titles encourage students to examine history in the context of their own lives, and express their observations. In The Learning Co.'s Oregon Trail II, kids keep a personal journal as they venture westward on the Overland Trails, uncovering 5,000 photo-realistic images along the way. Another title, Klondike Gold from DNA Multimedia uses the Yukon Territory as the backdrop for an up-close look at the Gold Rush.

Not surprisingly, many publishers have exploited advances in multimedia technology to pack their products with rich archival video, audio and animation. Greatest Moments of Our Time from EMME Interactive and Pantheon captures the pivotal events of the last 96 years through archival footage of figures such as Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Amelia Earhart.

In addition, more titles now feature built-in links to resources on the Internet. Step into the Virtual Newsroom in DK Multimedia's Chronicle of the 20th Century and read about everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Their Chronicle Online Web site has information on current events and contests.

Students can also witness the horrors of war as never before. FlagTower Multimedia's World War II focuses on mankind's most destructive conflict, which claimed over 55 million lives. Distinguished by dramatic narrative and rare digitized film footage, this CD includes a special theme section entitled Experiences from the Holocaust, a harrowing account of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany.

Battles of the World from SoftKey Multimedia presents the history of war through an interactive timeline spanning more than 4,000 years. The disc features articles on the generals who led their troops to victory and defeat as well as the military weapons they used -- from the catapult to the Apache helicopter.

Some programs even invite users to take a front-line position and join in the battle. Sierra On-Line's Robert E. Lee: Civil War General lets one manage an army and move thousands of men with the click of a mouse. Similarly, in Entrex's Civil War II: Unconditional Surrender, students choose to fight for Confederate independence or to preserve the Union; superior tactics and knowledge of the war's history lead to victory.

Promoting Multiculturalism

A growing number of titles review the accomplishments of ethnic groups that receive little attention in traditional textbooks. Based on the best-selling book and acclaimed TBS documentary series of the same name, The Native Americans from Philips Media Software g'es beyond the myths and legends to deliver a fresh view of America's original inhabitants. Students learn about major tribes, events and personalities by navigating through 55 subject areas, each with several offshoots.

Two notable videodiscs delve into multicultural issues. A Level I/Level III videodisc from CEL Educational Resources, Set On Freedom: The American Civil Rights Movement lets entire classes witness events such as the Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 march in Washington, D.C., and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Disney Educational Productions, meanwhile, brings their film adaptation of Who Owns the Sun? and related instructional activities together in one ImaginActive videodisc for primary and intermediate grade levels. The award-winning film follows the story of a slave boy who becomes aware that he and his family are "owned" by another man.

Administrators with limited funds will be pleased to find out that prices for top-notch social studies software have dropped considerably in the past year. Based on a definitive two-volume history of the U.S., Voyager's Who Built America?, for example, comes in a special Educational Edition of five CD-ROMs and a teacher's guide for an SRP of $175. Suitable for ages 13 and up, the disc won the James Harvey Robinson Prize from the American Historical Association.

The Rest of the World

While the aforementioned programs predominantly deal with American history, a plethora of CDs look at events elsewhere. CLEARVUE/eav offers a series of World History titles examining everything from the Victorian Era to the Russian Revolution. From Thynx, Inc., comes the World History Interactive Library, which combines over 450 complete texts, 60 minutes of speech and video, 1,000 etchings and 307 biographies. Developed with input from a dozen university-level educators, the CD-ROM includes text from Facts on File, government archives and commissioned research as well as the full contents of three Harper-Collins textbooks.

For those concentrating on the ancient world, Sumeria has teamed up with Scientific American to publish Exploring Ancient Cities, a CD about Petra, Teotihuacan, Pompeii and Crete. A highlight of Maris' Atlas of the Ancient World are 10 virtual reality reconstructions of the tomb of Queen Nefertari, a house in Mohenjo Daro and other structures. Decisions, Decisions: Ancient Empires from Tom Snyder Productions, meanwhile, challenges students to think like an ancient leader as they consider the impact of migrating to new lands and engaging in battles with an expanding empire. Educators may request a free 45-day trial of any Decisions, Decisions CD-ROM simply by filling out an online order form at

Looking at the "Big Picture"

More often than not, the latest social studies programs attempt to achieve an interdisciplinary balance that draws from art, literature, music and other elements of life. For grades 5-12, The Learning Team's Culture & Technology CD connects social studies and science with resources developed by curriculum specialists and extensively field tested over a 15-year period. A powerful search engine quickly finds resources relevant to teaching objectives.

From Cultural Resources, Inc., Culture 3.0: The Contextual Guide to Western Civilization illustrates how particular events influenced and were influenced by the religious, literary, philosophical and scientific currents of the time. The organization of the information encourages repetitive analysis of these diverse influences in order to understand the "big picture."

In addition, more programs call upon students to apply their newfound knowledge in hands-on activities. Debuting on videodisc in 1997, Video Experiences: Social Studies uses video segments as catalysts, setting the stage for activities that promote higher-order thinking skills and integrate other subjects. This elementary-level product resulted from a collaboration between Optical Data School Media and Harcourt Brace School Publishers.

Designed for linguistically diverse classrooms, Paths to Freedom from Encyclopaedia Britannica features a wide variety of individual and group investigations on early America. Student teams present the results of their investigations to the rest of the class with corrections and amplification provided by the teacher.

Comprehensive Curricula

Another common practice in this field is a reliance on authentic materials such as letters, diaries, artwork and artifacts. A complete U.S. history curriculum for middle and high schools, Davidson & Associates' Vital Links contains an extensive database of over 400 primary resources, from photos and documents to speeches and songs. The package integrates multiple technology components and productivity tools -- including CD-ROMs, videodiscs, videotapes and custom "newspapers" -- for students to synthesize historical content and produce multimedia projects.

Finally, signaling what might be a trend for the rest of 1997 and beyond, Decision Development Corp. has released Social Science 2000, a complete K-8 social sciences curriculum that supports the concepts and standards of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Developed with a grant from the Florida Department of Education, this package comprises videodiscs, software, audiotapes, printed resources, trade books and maps. Lesson plans for the entire year of each grade level require students to interact with the materials and form broad geographic and multicultural perspectives.

Because dozens of innovative social studies programs come out each month, it is suggested that readers consult an up-to-date software catalog or routinely contact vendors to learn about their latest offerings.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.