History Places

Prompt: Consider the history and traditions of a place. Develop a conceptual model of your History Place and implement your model in a relational database, along with SQL queries so that front-end developers can query the model and keep it updated.

I once attended a lecture by Herbert Simon. He began with a few words about display-based problem solving, and then asked: “What else would you like me to talk about?” Thirty-five years later, his invitation still impresses me because, first, he seemed genuine, second, he was responsive to his audience, and, third, he had the mastery of the subject matter to pull it off.

In all of my teaching I encounter a tension. On the one hand, like Simon, how do I be responsive to what students bring to class and care about? On the other, how do I teach to the syllabus and the learning objectives; that is, what I think students should learn?

One way I respond to the tension is by positioning students to “find and frame their own problems” within pedagogical limits.

History Places is an example (1). This design brief asks students to create a data model that represents a “place” through “history.” History Places is a metaphor, a kind of template. To create a data model students need to envision a particular place and consider it through a particular conceptualization of time. Thus, within the very broad limits of “place” and “time,” students are positioned to find and frame their problems.

History Places Conceptual Model: Reference Solution. Credit: Hendry, 2008.

The History Places project brief also specifies a set of requirements that must be implemented. These requirements, which elaborate the History Places metaphor, position students to develop skills which satisfy the learning objectives, for example:

  1. A User can submit a Photograph or AudioFile for a Place.
  2. A User can browse a Directory of Places of arbitrary depth and breadth.

The metaphor “history places” creates an opening, within limits, for students to express their interests and creativity. Students are invited to find and frame their own problem. The technical requirements orient students toward solving particular narrow technical tasks. Working together, these two different levels of the project brief resolve, to some degree, the tension between being open to what students care about and meeting the demands of the syllabus.


(1) A full account of History Places can be found in Hendry(2007).


Hendry, D. G. (2007). History Places: A Case Study for Relational Database and Information Retrieval System Design. ACM Journal on Educational Resources in Computing, 7(1), Article 3, 20 pages.