Purdue News

March 24, 2006

Purdue history professor, students give 'synthetic' life to Baghdad

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A Purdue University history team is assisting Simulex Inc., a Purdue Research Park company, in developing a computer simulation that will help America better understand what matters to citizens living in Baghdad.

Stacy Holden and students
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"History is more relevant today than many people think," says Stacy Holden, an assistant professor of history who studies the Middle East. "Learning history is more than just memorizing dates and facts for a test. Purdue history students learn how to analyze problems, which can help them, and others they work with, acquire a better understanding of the world."

Three years after American forces entered Iraq to remove its regime, Holden and her history students are collecting data on Baghdad's people, neighborhoods, infrastructure, economics and culture. This information will be shared with Simulex Inc., a Purdue Research Park company, that will compile the information in a computer simulation that will put a face on Baghdad.

"Images on the nightly news do not always tell the complete story about life in Baghdad," says Holden. "The people in this city are struggling to deal with a precarious supply of food and water, not to mention electricity. At the same time, they are trying to go about their daily lives, working away from home and educating their children. The information we gather can help American leaders understand the social and economic conditions that foster urban insurgency in Baghdad."

The research project, which began on Jan. 1, is funded by Simulex. The company has developed a computer simulation — the Virtual International System — that provides context for many of the U.S. Joint Forces Command war games.

"Computer simulations have become much more sophisticated with the incorporation of this kind of social science research," said Rashmi Chaturvedi, a Purdue alumna and Simulex's chief policy analyst. "Partnerships such as this give academic rigor to the models Simulex builds within its synthetic environment."

Holden and her team are using newspaper stories, embedded journalist accounts, blogs and books to answer about 700 questions about the city. For example, the researchers are focusing on media coverage of Baghdad by evaluating sources of information in media accounts and whether journalists reporting on Baghdad issues are American or Iraqi.

"We're collecting everything that gives life to Baghdad," says Danielle Benhamou, a junior studying history and political science from Richboro, Pa. "Our job is to provide information about Baghdad — everything from its food supply to favorite media sources and to political ideology — by carefully studying everything related to the city."

Benhamou, like many of Holden's students who take her Middle East history classes, participates in ROTC. She will be commissioned to the Air Force in 2007, and she wants to be a pilot or work for intelligence.

Opportunities like working on the Baghdad project are what Richard Oloffson, a second-year master's degree student in European history from Naperville, Ill., specifically sought in selecting a graduate program.

"This is history in action," says Oloffson, who also worked on a project to make sure the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia is accurately documented. "History can be part of change. It's not just relevant to information in books. Both of my projects are examples of how we are doing research that is applicable and can make a difference."

Oloffson graduates this spring and will start working for Procter & Gamble Co. in the consumer marketing area.

The Department of History is housed in the College of Liberal Arts and offers bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. More than 300 undergraduate and 90 graduate students major in history. The 30-plus faculty teach and do research in American, world, European, medieval, Iranian, South Asian, Indian and the Balkans history.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Stacy Holden, (765) 494-7765, sholden@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Professor Stacy Holden (pointing to map of Iraq) is working with history students on research about Baghdad so America can better understand life in the Iraq capital through a computer simulation, which will be developed by Simulex Inc., a Purdue Research Park company. The students (from left) are Richard Oloffson, Allison Horner and Danielle Benhamou. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)


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