Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

Using the Wolfram Language in the Classroom: History

It’s on to history for the Wolfram Language in the Classroom series. History and social studies have the potential to incorporate lots of real-world data to examine relationships between politics, economics, and geography. The Wolfram Language comes with built-in knowledge on a wide variety of topics, including historical events, financial information, socioeconomic data, and geographic data.

We’ve mentioned previously in this series the computational approach to thinking that introducing the Wolfram Language into a classroom environment supports; in a social studies class, this approach allows students to find connections by analyzing real-world data. In the following lesson, I’ll show you how to help students explore connections between major war battles and historical financial data using the Wolfram Language. By way of example, here I’ll use the Vietnam War.

Lesson title: Investigating the US Economy during the Vietnam War
Grades: 9–12
Student goals:
– Logically organize and analyze data
– Represent data through abstractions such as models and simulations
– Increase ability to handle open-ended problems

– Have students choose major battles/offensives of the Vietnam War
– Have students plot the Dow Jones closing prices around the times of the chosen battles
– Lead the students in a discussion to draw possible conclusions and analyze connections between the Vietnam War and US economics

To start the activity, have the students take a look at the date range of the Vietnam War. It’s easy to get the information with the Wolfram Language’s free-form input:

The Wolfram Language's free-form input

Students can then make a timeline plot of the span:

Creating timeline plot

The meat of the lesson is to have students investigate the impact of major battles/offensives of the Vietnam War on the US economy. The first part is to determine the battles that should be used. To get more statistically significant results you will want to look at many battles, possibly incorporating other wars as well. For brevity in this post, though, I will focus on just three major battles:

  • Battle of Ap Bac (January 2, 1963)
  • Battle of Ia Drang (October 19–November 26, 1965)
  • The Fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975)

There are a variety of ways to characterize the state of the economy, and it is instructive to have students research, choose, and defend their preferred method. Again for simplicity, I will look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Using the free-form natural language input, students can determine the closing prices of the Dow Jones for the dates of the battles.

Once the students have the battles and dates chosen, they’ll need to get the Dow Jones financial data around the time of the battles. Students will use Ctrl+= and type in natural English to return the Dow Jones for a specific date range. The first offensive on the list is the Battle of Ap Bac; this is the date range for about six months before and after the battle. Depending on the results, it may be beneficial to extend the range around the battle date:

Obtaining Dow Jones financial data from time of battles

Again using free-form natural language, have the students create a date object for the date of the battle:

Creating a date object for the date of the battle

Next have the students create a date list plot of the Dow Jones performance around the time of the Battle of Ap Bac. There is an option for DateListPlot called Epilog that essentially generates an additional graphic on top of the plot. The red line indicates the day of the battle. By indicating the exact date or date range of the offensive, it becomes easier to determine if there was a drastic change immediately afterward:

Creating a date list plot with the Dow Jones performance around the time of the battle

Students should repeat the procedure for the Battle of Ia Drang and the Fall of Saigon, as I will show in the following sections.

Battle of Ia Drang

Since the Battle of Ia Drang covers a span of time, students will want to calculate both the beginning and end dates. Have the students save the beginning date in the variable start:

Saving the beginning date as variable start

Store the end date in the variable end:

Store end date in the variable end

Students will use the built-in knowledge in the Wolfram Language to return Dow Jones closing prices from May 1965 to May 1966:

Returning Dow Jones closing prices using the Wolfram Language

Instead of just one red line, students will need two red lines this time to indicate the beginning and end of the battle:

Creating date list plot with Dow Jones performance at time of battle

Fall of Saigon

Again using free-form natural language, have students create a date object for the date of the battle:

Create date object for Fall of Saigon date

Then have students get the closing price of the Dow Jones around the Fall of Saigon. I used November 1974 to November 1975:

Dow Jones closing prices from November 1974 to November 1975

Just like the Battle of Ap Bac, students plot the Dow Jones financial data and use GridLines to mark the specific date of the offensive:

Dow Jones financial data during battle on a data list plot

Investigation and Analysis

The Wolfram Language gives students easy and instant access to financial data and lets them create visualizations with straightforward coding. Once all the plots of the Dow Jones closing prices have been made, have students look at the plots together. Use Column to create a nice stack of the plots:

Using Column to create stack of plots

This post has been designed to be an introduction to some of the tools for analyzing historical data available in the Wolfram Language. To develop a strong hypothesis about the relationship between war and the US economy, you’d obviously want to explore many battles across different wars and look at more effective economic indicators. When students have collected and analyzed enough data, prompt them to investigate the effect of war on the economy and discuss possible connections:

  • Is there a connection between major offensives and the US economy?
  • Is the Dow Jones a good representative of the US economy?
  • Does the economic effect of the battle depend on when during the Vietnam War it happened?

One key theme you might explore with your students is whether war is “good” for an economy. Thinking solely about the limited information presented here, some students might conclude that it is. Challenge your students to think about wars macroscopically by broadening the range of dates in their analysis and by pulling together multiple sources of information, as the relationship between war and the economy is complex and nuanced.

My hope is that with this lesson you have started thinking about how you can bring programming into your history class, and that by using the Wolfram Language you have many more tools at your disposal to help your students build their understanding of such a deep topic.

To see more posts in this series, please click here.

Download this post as a Computable Document Format (CDF) file.


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  1. I’ve done a quick (timeline) study comparing: wars v. poverty v. “fairfness of court justice / strength of courts” (strength of courts before and after war over the years and wars in various countries).

    Please conject what you think the outcome of that history is!

    “the rich need poor courts” -jh