In the late 1980s, Erika Bsumek arrived at the University of Utah as an art major. She left with a degree in history. But the impact of the visual and the importance of spatial relationships never left her.
Bsumek’s years of teaching history led her to develop digital timeline software that allows students and researchers to chart events chronologically and create network maps of their projects. The software, ClioVis, has helped students with critical thinking by illustrating connections between events. Bsumek designed ClioVis to help students collaborate either in class or remotely as they think about the relationships between historical events, but it has expanded into other fields.
Bsumek says, “It was really exciting for me as a historian to develop this software in history classes and then have a biochemistry professor say, ‘Oh, my students could use that.’” For example, those students could use the software to plot a biochemical pathway, and in doing so, they would gain a better understanding of the sequence of chemical processes. Bsumek, the daughter of engineers, is now working with professors across campus to adapt the software for use in STEM. In addition, the associate professor of history has recently been inducted into UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
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Erika Bsumek charts her own fascination with history to learning about the context of her family’s heritage. Her mother was born to Italian immigrants, and her father was born in Germany. Being Mormon in Germany during World War II made her father’s family vulnerable, because they were not Protestant. Her grandfather was drafted into the German army, sent to the Baltic Sea, captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. “When you are in elementary and high school, you try to put your family stories in context,” Bsumek says. “You try to understand them through the things you are learning in school, and in school, I was learning about World War II and how Germans were evil and all Germans were Nazis.”
Shortly after World War II, her father’s family was sponsored by the Mormon church to live in Utah. Bsumek was raised non-Mormon in Salt Lake City and Warren, Pennsylvania.
Courses at the University of Utah helped put her family histories in context and helped her to see beyond the stereotypes and into their complexity. Bsumek says, “I had these really engaging professors — Dave Gutierrez and Peggy Pascoe — who later became known as a key foundational cohort of the New Western History.” The movement focuses on race, class, gender, personal history and environment.
Bsumek, who received her doctorate from Rutgers University-New Brunswick, specializes in Native American history, environmental studies, digital history, the history of the built environment and the history of the American West. She was inducted into UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers for using various teaching approaches to engage students and encourage them to think critically about history.
UT is a place with many opportunities for interdisciplinary study, and Bsumek believes that different perspectives result in more interesting conversations and ultimately greater learning. She says, “I ask students to do a group research project in my Building America class that could be described as ‘What Came Before.’ I try to break them up according to their majors and rank. … Freshmen are working with seniors.” She then gives the students a research prompt: What came before the Brooklyn Bridge? What environmental, technical or social conditions had to exist for the bridge to be built?
Bsumek says that when a mathematics major or an engineering major studying the Brooklyn Bridge works with a history major, they will talk about different things and make discoveries based on their interests. For example, the students might make connections between the history of math and the history of American immigration. The math major might know about the mathematical equations that made it possible for early builders to create Gothic arches, and the history major might research the Irish and German immigrants who worked as laborers. The two groups will then discuss that: While it was the engineer who designed the bridge’s Gothic arches, it was the immigrant laborer who actually built them — and that advances in mathematics had to come before the bridge, as did changing social conditions that brought immigrants to New York. The students learn from one another.
It was really exciting for me as a historian to develop this software in history classes and then have a biochemistry professor say, ‘Oh, my students could use that.’
She uses other approaches to help students learn from their peers as well. Bsumek was the first professor in UT’s College of Liberal Arts to incorporate the Sanger Learning Center’s Peer-Led Undergraduate Studying (PLUS) mentorship program into her classes. Through PLUS, undergraduate students who have successfully completed a course return to lead weekly meetings, create study group guides, serve as mentors and help support their peers. This results in more focused, deeply researched projects and also greater feedback on issues and questions students may face.
Bsumek says she is glad to see the diversity of student experiences and backgrounds in her classrooms and at UT generally. “It’s an amazing thing to begin to help students connect the things they care about, things that are happening right now — sometimes to them — to the past. That’s what I love most about teaching,” she says. “When you can make something relevant to someone, that’s when they start to care about it, as opposed to memorizing a bunch of names and dates. That’s what my professors did for me and something I try to pass on to my students.”
She also tries to make a personal connection with her students and learns as many of their names as possible, which is not always easy in her 160-person classes. “I get to learn about them a little bit. It makes it a little easier for them to come to my office hours in person or virtually,” Bsumek says. Regarding the switch to remote learning, she notes, “There have been a lot of challenges, but it’s really important that we try to humanize our students as much as possible.”
In smaller research-focused classes, Bsumek is proud to guide her students as they write longer research papers as well. Daunting to students at first, Bsumek believes it becomes easier for students when they choose a topic they care about.
She recalls a student from the Rio Grande Valley who took a couple of her classes and eventually wrote about the environmental history of the Valley in her environmental history seminar. Coming from a family of farmworkers who had been exposed to pesticides and who had a high cancer rate, he then decided to go into environmental law.
“Apparently, when you go to law school and you pass the bar exam, they ask you to name somebody who influenced your trajectory. And he named me,” Bsumek says. “It was a true highlight for me, one of the most meaningful moments of my career.”
On being inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, Bsumek says she feels fortunate to be part of UT’s “robust and engaged” Department of History, where she is continually learning from her colleagues.
Bsumek says she is grateful for the resources on campus that students and faculty have access to, and that UT has helped her develop her career and teaching skills. She says, “I get to teach at an amazing institution, and I get to teach the diverse students who are enrolled here. I just feel super lucky that UT is the place I get to work.”