Making the US Census an Accessible Classroom Resource, SSDAN Fosters Data Literacy

February 01, 2024

Data analysis has long been the coin of the Social Science realm, but the drive to prepare the next generation to use and make sense of data has never been more zealous. Higher education is adapting to wide and deep demands to train students, adding new programs in data science and shifting curricula across the social sciences and the humanities to provide basic skills in data analysis and quantitative literacy. But for faculty across all disciplines, it’s not always clear where to begin.

The Social Science Data Analysis Network (SSDAN): Bringing Census Data to the Classroom

Enter the Social Science Data Analysis Network (, a program embedded in the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. SSDAN creates demographic media, such as user guides, web sites, and hands-on classroom computer materials– that make data from the U.S. Census Bureau accessible to students and teachers, along with the media, policymakers, and informed citizens. For educators, the offerings include more than 200 free modules that can be downloaded for use in general coursework to enhance topics they’re already teaching about– providing students with hands-on experiences in real-world data analysis. The modules cover such topics as poverty and inequality, race and ethnicity, marriage and family structure, and health disparities– to name a few.

“After attending an SSDAN workshop in the summer of 2017, I started thinking much more carefully about how I could integrate quantitative literacy opportunities across the sociology curriculum,” said Lisa Miller of Eckerd College, a user and creator of SSDAN learning modules who makes the case to her students about why they should care about data analysis. “In the context of my gender class, I will sometimes talk to them about how data can be really transformative if we’re serious about reducing inequality… and that often captures their attention if I tie it into implications for social change.”

Jill Bouma of Berea College, an SSDAN faculty instructor, has developed modules on how factors such as race, gender, age, and education impact earnings. “It’s hands on. It’s applied,” said Bouma, who has used SSDAN resources in the classroom for 20 years. “Students often start out scared of numbers and end up feeling really empowered.”

Undergraduate Abiola Bisiriyu presents survey data in the Fall 2023 Sociology class at Lehman College “Social Perspectives on Health and Disability.” In the acccompanying image, Lehman undergraduate Angelica Deleon presents on disability resources. Professor Esther Wilder uses SSDAN resources to introduce students to Census data analysis. The photos are by Esther Wilder, used with permission.

“By marrying data analysis with early social science courses, students come to realize why understanding statistics is important in the classroom and in society,” said William H. Frey, SSDAN director. “SSDAN empowers students, scholars, and policymakers alike to glean invaluable insights from the vast landscape of Census data.”

SSDAN Workshops for Educators

One of SSDAN’s pivotal initiatives lies in educational outreach. Educators looking for a place to start should consider applying to SSDAN’s annual virtual workshop, tailored to the creation of individual quantitative learning modules to meet educators’ particular needs. Instructors include Frey, Bouma, Esther Wilder of Lehman College, City University of New York, and Katherine Rowell of Sinclair Community College.

Workshop sessions include seminar discussions, practice exploring the SSDAN resources including WebChip, tips and tools for incorporating quantitative analysis in social science courses, and small group work to develop individual exercises. WebChip is an accessible and interactive tool on the SSDAN website that is designed to help integrate social statistics into the classroom setting. Many learning modules use WebChip as a basic user friendly access to US Census data analysis. 

SSDAN also hosts workshops at the Annual Meetings of the Population Association of America and American Sociological Association.

The 2024 virtual workshop,Using Census and ACS Data in Undergraduate Courses, will convene virtually on March 11 and 18, 2024, from 3-5, and instructors must apply to attend by Feb. 21. 

Advanced Demography Webinars

SSDAN provides a spectrum of resources tailored for more advanced students, scholars, researchers, and educators. SSDAN hosts widely-attended virtual webinars for participants to learn how to use R to analyze census data for use in courses and research in sociology, economics, public policy, urban studies and related disciplines. The three-day 2024 webinar series planned for February will be led by Kyle Walker, Associate Professor at Texas Christian University and R developer. Walker will be using the most recent American Community Survey data in these webinars touching on working with Tidycensus, mapping and spatial analysis in R and Python. 

Upcoming seminars will be held Feb. 8, Feb. 22, and Mar. 7, from noon to 3.  

Future Endeavors

SSDAN seeks to build a stronger community of educators to make data analysis explorations an accessible, available, and desirable component of introductory social science courses. SSDAN also maintains a catalog of learning modules available for public use on a huge variety of social science topics. By nurturing a generation adept at navigating and comprehending data, SSDAN contributes significantly to fostering data-literate citizens.

“I think what we’re doing here is absolutely critical,” said Esther Wilder, a Lehman sociologist and SSDAN faculty instructor. “It really is transformative for our students. It not only empowers them with important skills, but it really changes their attitudes about working with data.”

This post was written by SSDAN Project Coordinator Jessica Waters and Population Studies Center Communications Specialist Tevah Platt.

Interested attending? Submit an application for the instructor workshop or register to attend the February advanced demography webinars.