Do a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and its youths’ math ability go hand-in-hand? What about its GDP and CO2 emissions? Is suicide in the United States on the decline? How about the violent crime rate? These are all captivating questions, and the commonality among them is that they were all posed by students—rather than myself—in a college algebra course. The key resource we used to study these questions was Gapminder.org, a site that began out of Stockholm in 2005 (Gapminder, 2015). Like other sites with data to peruse (e.g., data.gov, census.gov), Gapminder provides an important means for students to develop data literacy skills, which are important in a host of disciplines and in real-world contexts, too. What differentiates Gapminder from such sites is its rich exploration tool and its wide variety of data for any interests.
In this post, we will take a look at the site, its main features, and ways in which one might use it in the college classroom in any number of disciplines. Also, included at the end are a set of links to resources for use with the site.
The History of Gapminder
Gapminder began humbly, with the creators of the site having the goal of using data and its visualization to raise awareness about a variety of global issues ranging from income inequality and water quality, to HIV prevalence and literacy rates. The idea—pushed forward by creator Hans Rosling—exhibited promise from the beginning, as Google began working with the site in 2006 to offer fluid animation applets to give rich meaning to the data (Gapminder, 2015). In all, there are roughly 520 data sets that are available for students to peruse. When I piloted the project, all of my twenty-nine students chose different sets that they found interesting; hence, seemingly any cadre of students will find a distinct set of interest. To give an idea of the topics students in the course chose, as well a glimpse of the actual product, sample screenshots can be seen below.
How You Can Use Gapminder
But the data sets are just the beginning. What instructors and students alike will likely find most appealing are the data visualization tools. The main tool is Gapminder World, which allows one to plot any two of the hundreds of datasets against one another, showing the points for each country at the latest point in time. Notably, the points are proportional to the country’s population size, and their color represents the continent they are on. This allows for one to develop a host of interpretations and questions from one graph. Moreover, should the user want to examine trends among two variables over time, with the click of a button they can see the points through the past several decades. There are many features in addition to what I have described here, but fortunately, there are a number of resources on the site itself so that newcomers can jump right in. I include a screenshot of Gapminder World below, as well as questions and assignment ideas that might apply to any number of disciplines.
A variety of questions might spring from the figure above. For instance: What type of overall trend do we see in the relationship between GDP/capita and life expectancy? Has this changed over time? What is GDP/capita? What does it tell us about a country, and what is it missing? What historical factors might explain these trends? What about policies in place currently? What drives the GDP/capita of the countries with low values? What about those with high values? Does having a higher GDP/capita inherently cause the life expectancy of a nation to increase? What confounding factors might be at play here? How can we study those hypotheses? Such questions are only beginnings to what could become lengthy classroom discussions, activities, or projects. In the college classroom—where global understanding is increasingly necessary and valuable—the benefits of Gapminder are numerous.
The introduction of data and its visualization in this manner serves as a two-way bridge between quantitative disciplines and those with a writing focus, allowing for critical thinking using numbers. That is, as data and quantitative reasoning become increasingly prevalent within mainstream conversation and argumentation, the need for an understanding of data and its visualization becomes much more pronounced for students in all disciplines. Moreover, the tool Gapminder World is inherently engaging; its open-ended nature and ease of exploration fosters question-posing and the personal construction of understanding. Instructors in sociology or writing, among other disciplines, might use this as a quick means of sparking controversy or illustrating an idea. Or, the tool might be used over the course of a semester for projects and papers. The possibilities for engagement with Gapminder are wide open. So, why not use Gapminder to bring the world into your classroom?
As someone who uses the tool quite frequently in college mathematics courses, I’d love to hear from teachers who have used it in other disciplinary contexts, as well as from those who use other digital tools for bringing the world into the classroom. Feel free to reach out to me here or on social media!
Gapminder. (2015). History of Gapminder. http://www.gapminder.org/about-gapminder/history/
TedTalk about data and Gapminder
How do you envision using Gapminder in your class? Share ideas in the comments below!
Photo attribution: Free material from www.gapminder.org/ CC 4.0/ Cropped
Luke Tunstall is a graduate student in mathematics education and University Distinguished Fellow at Michigan State University. He has taught at multiple levels and is interested in curricula that promote quantitative literacy. In particular, he has an interest in post-secondary mathematics courses and the ways in which they can promote numeracy.