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What is the DIGITAL CONTINGENCIES Project about?

There is a common misconception that digital representations accurately depict original data. In reality, ambiguous findings are often represented and processed with digital methods in inaccurate ways, especially when widely available standard software is used. This can introduce problems for working scientifically with digital tools when relying on historical data. For example, historians might introduce false accuracy to a data set when using as a database a program for managing personal data typically that expects a unique year of birth, despite the fact that the available historical source material only gives information about a possible birth period but did not include exact dates of birth.

Another example of these pitfalls comes with using digital methods for creating 2D/3D maps and models, which are now widely used in the humanities: in addition to physical limitations in their resolution and accuracy, these methods may also lead to possible structural errors under certain conditions, e.g. in texture-poor areas or in repetitive structures. Yet, the very concreteness of the presentation obscures these problems even more deeply for most users.

In order to explore how to scientifically deal with these inaccuracies, this project has employed education and evaluation methods from problem-based learning in combination with blended learning, developing a module on “Spatial Technologies in Digital Humanities” that centers on the problems of contingencies. The module was offered as part of Jacobs University’s specialization portfolio in the undergraduate programs of “International Relations: Politics and History” as well as “Robotics an Intelligent Systems (RIS)” and “Computer Science”.

The project profits from the already existing cooperation between the fields of history and robotics at Jacobs: The principial investigators of this project already collaborate in the BMBF-funded project "3D Digitalization of the Memorial U-boot Bunker Valentin by air, ground and underwater robots (Valentin-3D)".  Students have been given the opportunity to to build on data collected by the BMBF project while presenting the content and developing the analytic skills required when having to deal with contingencies in the digitalization of the remnants of the giant Nazi-built submarine Bunker Valentin in Bremen-Farge.

 “Spatial Technologies in Digital Humanities” and Problem Based Learning

The module “Spatial Technologies in Digital Humanities”, offered in the 2021 spring semester, looked at different aspects of contingencies. This was done  by employing a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach that centers on complex problems that do not have a single correct answer. Such an approach facilitates the development of flexible knowledge, effective problem-solving skills, self-directed learning skills, effective collaboration skills and intrinsic motivation.

The module was designed to contribute to students’ training in the field of digital (spatial) history, namely, historical research enhanced by the use of digital technologies. Resolving the problem at hand required them to explore aspects related to the historical background of the construction of the bunker, in this case, and its connection to the political, social, economic history of Nazi Germany and World War II, and especially the context of Nazi Slave Labor.

To deepen and broaden students’ knowledge, blended learning techniques were used: (Spatial) Data Acquisition and Processing in the context of Digital Humanities were introduced and taught using online means, including interactive elements like Jupyter Notebooks. This provided the grounding for students to learn about the relevant digital technologies and their underlying methods, including using selected data to study the effects of the interplay of methods and of parameter settings.

This introduction to digital methods (and their relation to contingencies) was complemented by an introduction to the aspects of contingencies from the viewpoint of Digital Humanities, in particular Spatial History in the context of the (digital) results of the Valentin-3D project. Thus, elements of case-based learning served as seeds for identifying and exploring more fundamental, general problems, which students were then asked to investigate in teams in the further part of the module.

Self- and peer-evaluation methods have been used in the module to assess the students’ performances, as these methods are known to be motivating factors, especially in the context of PBL. Concretely, students regularly presented their ideas and approaches to handling of contingencies in class, followed by discussions moderated by their instructors.

“Valentin-3D” as a Seed for Problem-Based Learning

The development of the module has profited from the already existing cooperation between history and robotics at Jacobs in the project "3D Digitalization of the Memorial U-boot Bunker Valentin by air, ground and underwater robots (Valentin-3D)" funded by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF). While the ongoing Valentin-3D project has already produced a significant amount of different types of spatial data of relevance for historical research, neither educational concerns nor questions of contingencies (which are manifold in this context) are within its scope. The Digital Contingencies project and the related module "Spatial Technologies in Digital Humanities" are hence perfectly complemented by the ongoing Valentin-3D project.

Bunker Valentin is a remnant of World War II. Construction of the bunker began in summer 1943 and progressed quickly. It was built by a vast number of forced laborers originating from various countries across Europe.; around 10,000 per day worked on the construction site. At least five labor camps were built in the vicinity of the construction site, among them a satellite of the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg. Thousands of workers died due to devastating working and living conditions during 1943 to 1945. Acknowledging the painful history behind its construction, the site of Bunker Valentin is now a memorial. It is important to add that the data generated in the Valentin-3D project will be made available to the general public and, in particular, to researchers.

Project Chair: Dr. Julia Timpe, Prof. Dr. Andreas Birk
Collaborators: Frederike Buda

  • Dr. Julia Timpe
    Jacobs University

  • Prof. Dr. Andreas Birk
    Jacobs University