Carina Chan, a student at Sheffield University, has been volunteering on the Kent Maps Online project, which was built using JSTOR Labs' Juncture, an open-source framework for creating engaging visual essays. Her work was part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, a UK award which helps young people build life-long belief in themselves, supporting them to take on their own challenges, follow their passions, and discover talents they never knew they had. Read her story to find out more about what attracted her to the project.
As an aspiring civil engineer, it is to no one's surprise that I am acquainted with deriving formulae and solving algebraic equations. There are very few instances where I would dive deeply into a research project. On the rare occasion when I do, it will most likely be a technical analysis of an infamous failure of a structure.
Admittedly, I tend to approach all my essays with a structured and formal attitude. Perhaps this is due to my minimal exposure to the world of research. As a result, the narrative of these essays may seem monotonous and objective. And though this formula works well for analysing and evaluating buildings, it is far from an ideal approach when narrating a meaningful biography, which Kent Maps Online was looking for.
Kent Maps Online
I decided to volunteer for Kent Maps Online as they impressed me with their project's aim. They do a fantastic job when highlighting the rich history of Kent using well-recognised art and literary work that has been inspired by the county. Not only do I support the message behind the project, but I also found the delivery of their content via the visual essay format developed by JSTOR to be very creative and innovative. I have never encountered the concept of a visual essay but was enticed to explore its potential further for creating interactive experiences.
Fueled with curiosity and wanting to step out of my comfort zone, I challenged myself to create an engaging and immersive visual essay to bring someone's story to life. The question is: whose story should I tell? Well. With my prior experiences in STEM subjects, I was inclined to look for scientists and engineers from Kent. However, that idea quickly faded as I explored the Kent Maps website in more depth. I became aware of the diverse range of people, geographical locations and disciplines that were all intertwined. I found myself appreciating the idea that people from different eras and walks of life, some world-famous and some silent heroes, can all be tied to one location. From this, I realised I wanted to tell the story of a reserved hero. A name that isn't branded in every history book like Charles Darwin but still contributed to society. That is when I found a woman by the name of Elizabeth Gould.
Researching Elizabeth Gould
Similar to all my previous research projects, I began with some generic google searches. Unfortunately, choosing a lesser-known figure to investigate proves more challenging than usual. At this point, all I knew about Elizabeth was her date of birth and death and the names of her familiar relatives. Thankfully, a student ambassador at Canterbury Christ Church University treated me with a sly researching hack. She advised me to use Wikipedia – I know, not the most credible site on the internet – and use their articles' references and citations to look for sources. This clever tip saved me a sizable amount of time from googling and clicking on every link in sight. Not to mention, the resources were significantly more detailed than the stark fact files I had previously found. Before long, I had a plethora of information from books to blogs to websites, which led to my next predicament. I was swarmed with a cluster of unorganised facts and notes. It was inevitable that I would completely lose track of my progress and sources. Fortunately, another ambassador came to my rescue and suggested a method involving excel tables. At first, I was skeptical of how this mathematical software could help essay writing. My skepticism was quickly proven wrong when I started to note each piece of information or idea I wanted to use and tabulate it against a link to the resource. This method is so simple and yet such a powerful game-changer, there is no doubt that I will be using this technique to write all my future essays.
Writing the Essay
Now, with a clearer insight into Elizabeth's life, I felt ready to tell her story. And so I wrote. Bit by bit, I finished my first draft, which included all the details and facts about Elizabeth from her birth to her death. That should be enough, right? Yet, old habits die hard, and the cold and stoic tone continued to linger throughout my storytelling. Determined to twist the mood of this essay, I realised I needed a purpose for Elizabeth's story – a reason for writing it. I found this purpose from a surprising trend I noticed during my research. It seemed that Elizabeth's name could not exist without a mention of her husband, John Gould. She was always portrayed as the side character to John's glorious story. Although these writers acknowledged and credited her, it was a rare occurrence for light to be shed on Elizabeth's personal feelings and hardships. To fill this gap, I took this as an opportunity to unveil Elizabeth Gould from the shadows and remember her as an accomplished member of the ornithology community whilst also a loving mother and wife. With this newfound intent, I started to develop a more empathic narration of Elizabeth's life. Now her story felt slightly more tangible and less like an academic document.
Creating the Visual Essay
With a completed essay in hand, my next challenge was to make it into a visual and immersive experience for the reader. At first, I had no idea how to make my plain, ordinary essay into an exciting and optical one. Neither did I have the slightest clue of how to code using a completely foreign language, to me, known as markdown. Not deterred by my complete lack of understanding and knowledge, I explored the JSTOR Labs website, where I found my saving guide to making visual essays using Juncture. This indispensable manual contained everything a beginner, like myself, will ever need. It taught me how to set up a web page, add images and credit them appropriately under their unique licensing. The guide even detailed every step to perfectly fitting my pictures and maps on the screen. As insignificant as that may sound, I found it did wonders in polishing the overall presentation of my work. I must confess that my proudest coding moment was when I integrated a zoom effect into the essay, which is activated when the mouse hovers over a specific sentence. I believe that it was these small details that took my visual essay to a new level. To my surprise and amazement, these trivial details were not difficult to code at all, dare I say, quite enjoyable.
What I've Learned
Kent Maps has given me a refreshing break from solving calculus, for which I am very grateful. It has exposed me to a large variety of different disciplines allowing me to develop skills that I know I will utilise in the future. I thoroughly enjoyed overcoming the challenges it presented me along with the vast number of lessons I have learnt, some even found in the most unlikely of places. For example, I would have never thought of delving into ornithology or even taking the time to research the history of Kent. However, upon finding interesting little facts scattered throughout my research, I felt a familiar connection growing between me and these historical figures. For me, these little details reinforced the reality that people like Elizabeth had once lived and had families and made friends. One such link that I found interesting would be that Elizabeth named her child after Sir John Franklin, who led a fated expedition to find the North West passage. Though I don't see myself bringing up the topic of birds or late residents of Kent in casual conversations, I can utilise visual essays in the future. As a visual learner myself, having pictures and maps alongside paragraphs of text makes the information considerably more digestible and easier to empathise with. I believe that this method of visually contextualising data can benefit a multitude of disciplines. Again, I must reiterate that this has been an eye-opening experience filled with brand new opportunities to learn from.
If you would like to know more about the Kent Maps Online or the work that they do with the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, do get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.