A pair of weary, barefoot boys clothed in tattered overalls and dirt-stained shirts stand frozen in black and white, surrounded by heavy machines inside a cotton mill.

The 7-year-old clutches a corn broom, its tips frayed and filthy. The other boy, 12, poses next to a metal cart.

It’s 1911, and the picture illustrates a controversial era in U.S. history. Photographer Lewis Hine captured the portrait inside a Roanoke cotton mill as part of a series on child labor in the early 20th century. He listed the names of the two boys — Frank Robinson and Ronald Webb — along with their ages as a way to highlight the humanity of children forced to work in factories.

For Virginia Tech students in a recent Introduction to Data in Social Context course, taught by Department of History Professor E. Thomas Ewing, the images served as a launching point for in-depth research that drew the attention of the Library of Congress.  

Eleven teams, each composed of nine students, investigated the people named in each photo caption. In addition, the teams studied the scope of child labor, policies created to address the practice, and the implications of how public organizations and state and federal government agencies responded. 

Students pored over primary sources, such as census records, labor statistics, and news stories. They researched the names listed on the captions to learn more about the individuals and families depicted in the photographs. The project team assigned to research the photograph of the two boys in Roanoke found a death certificate from 1916 indicating that Frank Robinson, pictured on the left, died of typhoid fever at age 13.

In preparation for the course, Ewing, who is also the associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, contacted the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division to discuss how students were using open access digital resources. 

The students presented their work to library staff, who then featured the project on the division’s “Picture This” blog in a post titled “The Faces of Child Labor.”

Cyna Mirzai, a first-year multimedia journalism student, said researching the topic proved enlightening. “Before, I didn’t know much about child labor in the U.S.,” said Mirzai. “This really opened my eyes.”

Ewing focused the project on images of children in Virginia to illustrate the variety of communities across the state, from the mountains of western Virginia to the beaches of Norfolk. The subject matter set up the students’ second assignment of the semester: predicting the 2019 Virginia legislative elections. In teams, the students analyzed election and voter turnout data from previous years to forecast the outcomes of contested races.

For their third and final major project, students explored both the impact of surveillance on daily life and the technologies that government agencies and social media platforms use to gather information. Students presented research at an event hosted by University Libraries on the benefits, controversies, and psychology of surveillance, along with the science behind smartphone apps that discreetly collect personal data.

Political science senior Brett Kershaw presents research on smartphone apps that gather personal data during a research presentation for an Introduction to Data in Social Context class.
Political science senior Brett Kershaw presents research on smartphone apps that gather personal data during a research presentation for an Introduction to Data in Social Context class. Rachel Corell for Virginia Tech.

“I learned that using some of these apps is basically the equivalent of writing my social security number on a bathroom wall,” said Brett Kershaw, a fourth-year political science student. “We should all be more aware of where our information is going.”

Introduction to Data in Social Context is offered through the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Ewing said the course teaches students to consider data as a way of organizing information about people in relation to the context in which they live.

“The central questions for this course are also key issues for living in a world of data,” said Ewing. “What do we know, how do we know what we know, and who decides what we know?”

Ewing leads the Data in Social Context program at Virginia Tech. To learn more, visit the program website.

Written by Andrew Adkins