Penn State class relied on taco power to finish its winning map

Chris Satullo| January 29th, 2019

Professor Christopher Fowler

The idea that voters can draw election maps better than incumbent politicians has its skeptics. The doubters say regular folks could never grasp everything that goes into the task.

Take this tweet by Stephen A. Miskin, a longtime Capitol staffer who's spokesman for the House Republicans.

Ahhh, but what people like Miskin may be missing is the power of tailgating and tacos.

Behold Penn State’s Geography 421 class, taught by the irrepressible Christopher Fowler.

Fowler’s class is a regional winner in the first Draw the Lines PA mapping competition, in line for a bigger statewide prize at our awards ceremony in the State Capitol on Feb. 6.

Fowler, who proudly declares Penn State’s geography department the best in the land, stumbled upon Draw the Lines and its free digital mapping tool in a random Google search.

And the pedagogical wheels started turning in that head beneath the temporarily dyed-pink locks.

Fowler studied our Flashes of Insight exercise, which asks people to rank eight values one could bring to drawing an election map.

That struck him as wise: “I’m a geographer, but I know you can’t just do an election map with geography.  Values matter.”

He set out to teach his students in Geography 421 that point. But he never shared with them the Flashes of Insight cards. He decided instead to have his charges discover for themselves what values regular Pennsylvanians would bring to the task of drawing an election map. 

Why do it the hard way?

“College kids have so much energy, as long as it’s not the end of the semester when they’re dead, they’re up for a challenge,” Fowler said.

The challenge he put before them was to survey a fair sampling of the state’s people.

And what better place to find a cross-section of the Commonwealth on a fall day than a Penn State football game?

So, on the day of the big game with archrival Ohio State, Fowler’s students wandered the parking lots filled with Nittany tailgaters. The students held digital tablets loaded with a survey they’d crafted. They  had drawn up their own list of possible mapping goals, one very similar to the Flashes of Insight list.

Here’s Jake Kaminski, a senior from Pittston:

“The survey was six questions, each pairing two values, to see which one people valued more.  Do you value competitiveness more,or homogeneity? Should we honor counties or communities more? That kind of thing.  It was percentage based, with a slider bar.”  

Not the kind of thing you usually encounter in Happy Valley on football Saturdays. How did people respond?

“At first, people were: ‘I don’t want to be bothered,’” Kaminski said.  “But when they saw it, they said, ‘This is easy, I can do it.  Who wants a rigged competition?’”

Besides the tailgating lots, students in the class circulated the survey to friends and family around the state. Overall, they got 240 responses, representing a majority of the state’s 67 counties.

And the result was clear: The No. 1 goal of those surveyed was fair competition.

Then it was on to mapping.

And, no, the path to the honored map was not smooth.

Fowler first had everyone in the class try to draw their own highly competitive map of the state.

“And some of them were horrible,” he said.  Students tended to do OK mapping the region they come from, he said, but to be befuddled by the rest of the state.

“One of the wonderful things that came out of these labs, I got a dozen maps from students with notes saying, ‘I’m not happy with this map.’ They were taken back by how hard it was to draw a competitive map.”

Kaminski agreed: “I tried so hard to make Pittsburgh competitive and I was about to hit the New York border with that district and I said, ‘Jake, no one will go with this map.’"

He said one student’s highly competitive map “looked like a tiger had clawed through the state.”

So, Steve Miskin, you have a point.

But, wait, this is where the tacos come in.

Early in December, the class gathered at Fowler’s house to eat Mexican food and blend all their maps together into one entry for the Draw the Lines contest. They also wanted to make a video that night to chronicle, in Rastagno’s words, “our process, our values and our frustration.”

The map and the video  that emerged from the tortillas and the salsa won the class second place in our Central-higher education division, and a crack at the $4,500 state champion prize that will be awarded at the Capitol.

Whether they win or not, Kaminski says he learned a lot from the experience:

“I’ve always followed the process, made sure I vote – but this has opened my eyes to how my vote counts and where it counts.  That’s my big takeaway. Sometime the maps are rigged. And then that becomes a big part of democracy, figuring out how you can make yourself count.”