History on the right track

Mar 06, 2003, vol. 26, no. 5
By Anne Sharpe

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Assistant education professor Kevin O'Neill (front) and Jim Millar, manager/curator of the Port Moody Station museum, show off an old CPR train car outside of the museum. Millar is a volunteer online mentor for Tracking Canada's Past.

Giving students a more intimate look at history is the aim of an innovative project called Tracking Canada's Past.

It involves volunteer mentors from universities, museums and historical societies collaborating online with teachers and students in schools to study the history surrounding the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“We chose this theme because we wanted the potential to build the project to a national scale,” says Kevin O'Neill, assistant professor and coordinator for SFU's master's in education and technology. “The CPR is in the curriculum in almost every province.”

O'Neill came up with the idea when working on a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto. He made an application to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council with a collaborator there, Marlene Scardamalia, and developed the online community since his appointment at SFU in 2000.

A pilot project was conducted last year with 60 Grade 10 students participating from schools in Mission and Burnaby. Interaction between members of the online community and local archivists gave students the chance to discover connections between local and national history they wouldn't usually find in a textbook.

O'Neill and his team are looking to see whether participating students build a better understanding of how historical accounts are constructed.

Early results will be presented at the American Educational Research Association conference in April. “A big portion of the data analysis is focused on how we can bring the various components of the project together successfully in a range of settings, to produce the educational outcomes we're looking for in an equitable way,” O'Neill says.

“In my previous work, students' engagement with online mentors appeared to lead to more sophisticated arguments in their written work. We're hoping to reproduce those results.”

The second annual run of the project is starting now, with five classes and their teachers participating from three schools in the Lower Mainland and two in Toronto.

O'Neill expects to see about 150 students and 20 adult volunteers participating.

Funding for the project has been renewed for another four years.

The website is at Tracking Canada's past.

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