UND ‘thinks bigger’ with ND Digital Atlas

Evolving interactive state map and history book – all in one – launches following years of research

Phoebe Eichhorst, a senior, represented over 150 undergraduate researchers who have contributed to the North Dakota Digital Atlas since 2014. Eichhorst's contribution involved mapping food exports from the state. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Phoebe Eichhorst, a senior, represented over 150 undergraduate researchers who have contributed to the North Dakota Digital Atlas since 2014. Eichhorst’s contribution involved mapping food exports from the state. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

This past Thursday marked the public launch of a project years in the making, said College of Arts & Sciences Dean Brad Rundquist.

It even garnered the attention of NBA coaching legend and Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, who was back on campus last week for Homecoming and to receive a Sioux Award, the school’s highest alumni honor.

Over 150 undergraduate students, 25 faculty and staff, 13 departments, several University administrators and alumni benefactors made it happen – including Jackson, who was in attendance at the O’Kelly Hall launch event.

When the idea for a North Dakotan atlas was pitched to previous dean Debbie Storrs, the year before the state’s 125th celebration of statehood, she challenged geography professor Michael Niedzielski and Rundquist to think bigger.

“She liked the idea,” Rundquist said, which was a printed atlas illustrating changes to the state since Nov. 2, 1889. “But she wanted to make it a college-wide effort, and a digital product rather than printed. It went from there, and what we thought would be a one-year book project became a multi-year, digital venture.”

The North Dakota Digital Atlas is a feat of undergraduate research, collaboration and imagination. Mike Jacobs, former publisher and editor of the Grand Forks Herald, spent years volunteering his time, resources and in-depth North Dakota knowledge to help students develop the Atlas in Arts & Sciences 499 (Interdisciplinary Practicum).

“We see that this project is limited not by the borders of North Dakota, but by the imagination of students who see and seek out things happening in the state,” Jacobs said to those gathered.

Basketball legend and UND alum Phil Jackson, a benefactor of the North Dakota Digital Atlas, was able to attend its launch before accepting one of the 2018 Sioux Awards Thursday evening.

Basketball legend and UND alum Phil Jackson, a benefactor of the North Dakota Digital Atlas, was able to attend its launch before accepting his Sioux Award Thursday evening. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Digitizing North Dakota

The initial atlas idea became a curriculum involving two courses, one for developing student projects and another translating research results into maps (Geography 471, Cartography and Visualization). These classes worked together to make the ND Digital Atlas a viable resource for a variety of topics.

“We had one student who did a project on minor league baseball,” Jacobs illustrated. “We had another who showed where all of the state’s ICBM missiles were aimed. We also had a student who identified all of the commercial kuchen manufacturers in North Dakota.”

Jacobs says he is continually wowed by the interactions he has with students enrolled in A&S 499. Something remarkable happens every time one of them talks, and he never knows what’s next.

One of those students is geography, interdisciplinary studies and honors senior Phoebe Eichhorst. She learned about the Atlas project through her cartography course, where she paired up with a history major to map the growth of North Dakota towns. Her work across disciplines piqued her interest in pursuing a project in A&S 499.

Eichhorst wanted to study food security and the Atlas gave her the opportunity to map the export of crops nationally and internationally.

“It’s fun to be able to showcase my interest within my own discipline, but also to connect with people across campus,” she said. “Through this class, and this project, it’s wonderful to learn about this great state. I’m hoping with my contributions, people will look at my maps and learn something, too.”

Brad Rundquist, dean of the College of Arts & Science and lead on the Atlas, says most students in the class aren't from the state. Many come away from the experience with a greater appreciation for North Dakota. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Brad Rundquist, dean of the College of Arts & Science and lead on the Atlas, says most students in the class aren’t from the state. Many come away from the research experience with a greater appreciation for North Dakota. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Discovering North Dakota

Karl Bauer, now an instructor in the department of American Indian Studies, is a co-instructor and advisor for the 499 class. Like Eichhorst, he became involved with the Atlas as a junior geography student in the cartography course. He helped two philosophy students map religious affiliation in North Dakota, then became interested in ghost towns and rural population decline – a perfect topic for the Atlas.

What he admires most about the North Dakota Digital Atlas is how much it engages students in a state most likely unfamiliar to them.

“I like that most of the students aren’t from North Dakota,” Bauer said. “The Atlas helps them gain a sense of what the state is like. I’m originally from the Twin Cities. After those Atlas classes, it helped me learn to love the state.

“It’s not all just flat and boring – there’s a lot of interesting history, culture, geology and wildlife. It’s interesting to explore, and there’s so much studying to do.”

Eichhorst, a native of Nebraska, thought it would be good to learn more about the state in which she’s attending school.

“I’ve been going to school here for over three years,” she said. “Sometimes you leave college and don’t really know where you went to school, and I wanted to learn more about North Dakota. By asking questions and being curious, there’s so much to learn.”

Rundquist says that this year, only two of the students in A&S 499 are from the state they’re studying, adding it’s a great experience to get them out and learn something about other places west of Grand Forks.

Former Herald editor and publisher Mike Jacobs has spent substantial time and effort making the Atlas a success. With his intimate knowledge of the state, he's arranged field trips, interviews and helped students develop research projects. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Former Herald editor and publisher Mike Jacobs has spent substantial time and effort making the Atlas a success. With his intimate knowledge of the state, he’s arranged field trips, interviews and helped students develop research projects. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Teaching North Dakota

Regarding applications of the Atlas, Rundquist leaves that open-ended. He envisions its potential use in public schools, local and state government, tourism and creating more high-impact learning opportunities for students everywhere. There’s also seemingly unlimited space for more topics and content.

“We’ve viewed it from the student side so far,” he said. “We’re getting students working together in an interdisciplinary environment with faculty so they can learn about collaboration – working with people with different interests and ideas. We’re ready to share the results of that collaboration now, and it can be a resource for students to research about the state. Anyone who’s curious about North Dakota, in general, will find something of interest on the site.”

This semester, the A&S 499 students are reading “The Horizontal World” by Debra Marquart. The author writes about growing up in Napoleon, a town in Logan County – one of the counties selected for in-class study. Jacobs has a field trip planned to visit the area later in the fall.

“In the book she says, ‘If I had known that I was growing up in such an interesting place, I think I would have loved home a little more,’” Jacobs said. “That’s our back-pocket mission statement to get people interested in the state by presenting interesting stuff about it. There’s no end to that.”

The ND Digital Atlas can be visited by clicking this link – be sure to visit in the future for additional content.