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In this module, I overview how to use American FactFinder in a high school Social Studies classroom and include examples of how teachers have implemented this database into their teaching.
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American FactFinder is a great tool for researching demographic and economic information about the United States and its regions, states, and districts. It includes a wealth of information from the most recent as well as past U.S. Census Bureau data. This type of resource would be extremely useful for research in Geography, U.S. Government, Economics, or even U.S. History courses, though probably more for a high school level. American FactFinder could be used by either students trying to find information for a research project, or teachers trying to find Census data or maps to demonstrate specific points or topics in class. In addition to providing a seemingly endless amount of data tables and statistics, this resource also allows users to make some data visual in the form of maps via the "Create a Map" option to engage visual learners.
This website is very simple and easy to use, but there are many features that users may be unaware of that are particularly useful. For example, the Quick Search is an easy way to get started on finding particular U.S. Census information, but there are also opportunities to create your own maps of information and ways to do specific searches on topics, geographies, population groups, and industry codes. These are all features of this resource many users could easily miss. There are video tutorials for each of these features on the website, with a transcript of the video below in case a user would rather read the instructions.
Video Tutorials of Features
Quick Search: http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/quickstart.html
Create a Map: http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/create_map.html
Topic Search: http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/topic_search.html
Search Using Geographies, Population Groups, or Industry Codes: http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/geographies.html
The Quick Search tool is very easy to use. It is located on the front page of the website, and users will simply type in their topic of interest and can add any specific geographic region they may be interested in. As the user types, search suggestions will come up, which the user may or may not click on.
After completing the initial search, there are ways to modify the search results so the user can find precisely what he or she is looking for. For information, see the video tutorial on working with search results: http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/search_results.html
Create a Map
Creating a map is a resource many users will probably be unaware of, but it is a useful resource nonetheless. Once a user finds a data table that corresponds with geographic regions, it may be possible to create a map for the table to see the information visually. To create a map, simply click on the "Create a Map" link on the "Actions" bar. The user will be prompted to select a data value in the table to map. Finally, click "Show Map" when prompted, and the map will be generated along the user's particular theme and geography.
This lesson was designed for middle school students to acquaint them with using the American FactFinder tool and to help them research the American Samoa region. It was designed for a Civics and Government class. The teacher provided step-by-step instructions for students to create a "Custom Table" that compared statistics such as population by age, sex, and ethnic origin, statistics about income and transportation options, and even school enrollment and employment status in the American Samoa region. Once students were able to explore American FactFinder's features, they were required to apply their skills to complete a worksheet that forced them to compare specific data. Finally, students came together to share their conclusions about comparisons between the counties in American Samoa and had to explain why they were the same or different. In this lesson, American FactFinder was used almost as the sole resource for statistical information to look up targeted information. In fact, one of the objectives of the lesson was to have students become acquainted with American FactFinder since it is such a powerful research tool. The teacher also offered extra challenges for older or more skilled students: creating a thematic map based on data. For students without classroom computer access, the teacher suggested printing out some simple data for the students to create simple bar or pie graphs.
This is another example of a lesson plan designed for middle school students, grades 6-8, for subjects of geography, demography, or history. The lesson focuses on illustrating the concept of human migration, and it is titled "Human Migration: The Story of the Cultural Landscape." In this lesson, students use a variety of websites and resources to work with statistical data and maps illustrating the concept of human migration. The lesson offers step-by-step instructions for students to search on the "Fact Sheet" on American FactFinder to compare local and state data for their local area. It also suggests printing thematic maps and/or having students create their own maps using another technological resource, the Mapmaking Guide. Using the statistical and map data from American FactFinder, students are asked to answer a variety of questions about migration patterns in the state and local area and how they compare to each other and to the patterns in the U.S. overall. In this lesson, American FactFinder is being used as a powerful research tool in a limited and controlled way for students to explore data to answer specific questions. The lesson utilizes both the statistical data and the mapmaking capabilities of American FactFinder.
This example is designed for all secondary level students, though it seems more appropriate for high school students. This lesson is designed for civics courses, and its purpose is to familiarize students with the U.S. Census and using Census statistical information. Students work with several statistical databases to look at immigration patterns across regions in the U.S., including the New York Times' interactive graphic Immigration Explorer. American FactFinder is used at one point in the lesson to work with historical U.S. Census data on American FactFinder's Population Finder. Students use this resource to compare the nation's population trends to those of their state, county, and town over the past decade, and they plot this data on a chart. Again, American FactFinder is used in a targeted way for students to engage in statistics-based research. This lesson, though, utilizes American FactFinder's ability to compare historical data, not just recent U.S. Census data.
This example is designed for secondary level students in geography or even math classes. The purpose of the lesson was to have students understand spatial patterns of immigrants in North American cities, the demographic characteristic of immigrant neighborhoods, and how to make maps using American FactFinder. Again, this lesson featured American FactFinder as its primary tool. The teacher had students choose from a list of U.S. cities to investigate specific themes of their choice. It has students create thematic maps based on their chosen theme for their city and had students then compare data between blocks and districts within the city. After this, students put their statistical data into Microsoft Excel and ran a correlational analysis to compare districts. Once again, the teacher used American FactFinder as a powerful research tool in a very focused way, and it was used directly by students to complete specific tasks.
American FactFinder has many great qualities as a technological resource for secondary teachers of geography, civics, government, or even history classes. First, it offers a tremendous amount of statistical knowledge of economic and demographic data. This makes it a powerful research tool, as illustrated in almost all examples. Its breadth of knowledge available on U.S. demographic information since 1990 is unrivaled. Second, American FactFinder is a very simple and easy tool to use, especially since it offers tutorials directly on the site on how to use its features. This means students themselves can often work with the data, though teacher direction will usually be required. Third, American FactFinder not only offers a vast amount of statistical information, but it has a useful ability to make numbers more visual with its "Create a Map" and thematic mapping features. This will greatly aid visual learners to see and understand the concept if numbers are not getting the concept across, and it could be useful for PowerPoint presentations to include specific visuals to get a point across during a lecture. Many of the examples, specifically Examples 2 and 4, used American FactFinder's ability to create thematic maps from specific data in student activities.
ConsWhile American FactFinder has many great qualities, it, like everything, has some limitations. One of the problems that could arise is related to one of the pros, the vast amount of knowledge. Without specific instructions or teacher direction, students could easily get lost in the numbers and have difficulty finding the specific information they need since there is so much information available. This was evident in all the examples, since teachers had to lay out very explicit and specific instructions in each lesson plan on how to direct students to the proper information. Another potential limitation is that its abilities for historic information are limited, since it only goes back to 1990 Census information. Other resources, however, can provide older data to compare to more contemporary data available on American FactFinder. Example 2 exemplified the strategy of using multiple technological resources to accompany American FactFinder. Finally, while American FactFinder has mapmaking abilities, be warned, it only creates maps for certain data tables. Not every data table will have the "Create a Map" option.
After weighing the pros and cons and looking at specific examples, here are a couple of suggestions that will help teachers use American FactFinder in a geography, government, civics, or even history classroom.
This resource is great for student-centered research activities, as shown in each of the examples. Its great amount of knowledge and user-friendly quality make it great for student activities. Certainly, the amount of knowledge on virtually any demographic theme or topic makes it a very powerful research tool for research assignments.
Visual and Mapping Ability
While it's great to look at the numbers and weigh statistical information, some students will not be very engaged by data tables. For visual learners and probably all students in general, the mapmaking and reference maps available on American FactFinder are extremely effective at making the information visual and understandable. The "Create a Map" function and the thematic mapping were used in Examples 1, 2, and 4, and they were powerful compliments to the assignments. The mapping capabilities are highly recommended for use since they are easy to create and very effective.
American FactFinder is certainly a great research tool because of its extensive information, but as mentioned before, this can become a drawback. Students may find themselves lost in the long lists of data tables for the seemingly endless list of geographic regions. Therefore, teachers need to offer very explicit step-by-step instructions, as seen in each of the examples. Using assignments that target specific themes or demographic information can be useful, as well as limiting the geographic regions students may research. Assignments can also help keep students on task and directed toward their research instead of becoming distracted by the mapmaking and numerous other features American FactFinder offers. While American FactFinder is a great tool for student activities and research, teacher direction is definitely required for this resource.