UW News

June 6, 2019

UW professor leads students to hidden history in a small Tennessee town

UW News


This 19th century map shows Blount County, Tennessee, home to the communities involved in the Off the Map project, which is led by Katie Headrick Taylor, UW assistant professor of education.

This 19th century map shows Blount County, Tennessee, home to the communities involved in the Off the Map project, which is led by Katie Headrick Taylor, UW assistant professor of education.Tennessee Virtual Archive


Founders Square was once the hub of its small eastern Tennessee community of Maryville, a block filled with, among other things, a taxi stand, church, bus depot, mechanic shop, and bank.

Today it’s a parking lot — on Saturdays, a farmers market — its decades-old significance largely unknown to anyone other than longtime residents of Maryville.

That kind of detail surprised a group of high school students this winter as they learned the history of Founders Square and about two dozen other locations around town that aren’t what they used to be. For their study of a community still grappling with its pre-civil-rights-era roots, the students pore through documents, walk the streets, interview old-timers and take photos and videos.

At the end of it, the students decided, they will produce an app, a guide to a historical walking tour of Maryville and its neighboring town, Alcoa.

But this “hidden history” project, called Off the Map, isn’t a school assignment. Its research, led by Katie Headrick Taylor, University of Washington assistant professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development, into the use of technology to connect students to their community.

“One of my goals is to narrow the gap between classroom education and public engagement,” Taylor said. “Students can be more involved in their communities, more aware of where a place has been and where it’s going. A small community like this is also a good test of how to deal with potentially difficult issues — like events from history — in a way that won’t be polarizing.”

She has some experience with that. Maryville is her hometown.

But the experiences of young people in Maryville can translate to other small towns, Taylor explained, which is why she proposed it as a nonurban extension of her better-known project in three urban areas, called Mobile City Science.

Launched in 2012, Mobile City Science uses technology to promote “place-conscious education” and civic participation among middle- and high-school students, as well as university undergraduates. Piloted in New York, Chicago and Seattle, the project relies on smartphones as a research tool. Students use their phones, as well as paper maps and local archives, to collect and interpret visual, audio and statistical data about the geography, history and demographics of their communities.

In an article accepted for publication in Contemporary Issues in Teacher Education, Taylor and her co-authors describe how the Mobile City Science curriculum is adaptable to the setting and the learners. On the south side of Chicago, students analyzed the gentrifying neighborhood around their high school, documented a lack of after-school job opportunities and activities for young people and presented their findings to community leaders. In Queens, New York, high school students focused on advocating for additional health services, transportation resources and cultural amenities like those in other boroughs and gave their recommendations to researchers and educators at the New York Hall of Science.

And in Seattle, students in the UW College of Education continue to use Mobile City Science to study the neighborhood along the Duwamish River, and the juxtaposition of its industrial uses today against its traditional role among the Indigenous people that called the banks their home. Another application of Mobile City Science, through a partnership with Seattle nonprofit organization Neighborhood House, involves UW undergraduates from a variety of disciplines as mapping “mentors” who collaborate with middle-schoolers in an after-school program called STUDIO.

All three cities, though, are dense and walkable, Taylor pointed out, which has made Mobile City Science a natural fit there. A relatively small town miles from even a mid-sized city, where driving is necessary and where people may feel like they already know their surroundings and neighbors, posed a different challenge.

“Being able to see something on a map brings to light its issues and problems,” Taylor said. “The visual nature of these tools helps communicate that and create a conversation with the public.”

So she proposed the community effort of Off the Map, appealing to Maryville city and school district leaders, the local public library and students and teachers at Maryville High School. Teachers and district leaders from Alcoa, Maryville’s “twin city,” also joined the effort.  Named for the aluminum company that operates a plant there, Alcoa is home to Maryville’s rival high school. It’s also where more African-American families live, reflective of Alcoa’s formation as a company town and a gradual population shift away from Maryville.

Before launching Off the Map, Taylor paid a visit to Maryville, and while on a walk through the park, she read historical markers about the town’s past as an abolitionist stronghold — history she hadn’t learned about in school. Her initial idea was to connect younger generations to the town’s past, including its significance in the abolitionist movement. The 18 students who joined the project quickly decided on an additional, tangible outcome: an app that serves as an interactive walking tour of Maryville and Alcoa.

Then the learning process began. First, the students took a “walking audit” to determine what’s in the town now. Taylor calls this “asset mapping,” or simply “on-the-move data collection.” Community residents guide these walks, pointing out the history of different locations, such as the parking lot that used to be known by the majestic-sounding Founders Square.

A Maryville resident explains to students the history of Preservation Plaza. Photo of older man talking to a group of teenagers outside.

A Maryville resident explains to students the history of Preservation Plaza.Katie Headrick Taylor

Each student chose a specific location to follow up on. They took photographs, tracked down information about the site and recorded oral histories of longtime residents. Once edited and formatted, that information then will be fed into the app, so that a user could stop at any of what may eventually be a few dozen locations in the area, tap on an icon and view now-and-then images and a text summary, and listen to an audio clip.

By late March, the first 20 sites were officially “mapped,” and Taylor joined the students in presenting their findings to the community. Now, two students have begun to build the app, with a soft launch expected in summer.

Off the Map students decided that the app should be for classroom teachers and their students. A handful of teachers will be invited to pilot the first version and provide feedback. The students will do a redesign, and then the app will be available to all area teachers.

The entire process has been an intergenerational learning and teaching opportunity, supported by the strength of public institutions like the Blount County Public Library and local high schools, Taylor said. Young people have learned about the invisible histories of their communities from elders. The older generation has learned about mobile, digital ways of preserving their memories. “In my view, this is the best version of ‘public’ education we could hope for,” she said.

Off the Map is funded by the Spencer Foundation and the National Academy of Education. Mobile City Science is supported by the National Science Foundation. Co-authors on the Contemporary Issues in Teacher Education article were Deborah Silvis, Adam Bell and Erin Riesland of the UW; Remi Kalir of the University of Colorado Denver; Anthony Negron of the New York Hall of Science; and Catherine Cramer, now of Columbia University.




For more information, contact Taylor at kht126@uw.edu.