How Diverse Are We? -- Comparing Racial Composition of NYC and USA, 1980-2000

Bernadette Kwee Garam, Manhattan College, Bronx, NY
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this Spreadsheet Across the Curriculum activity, students will build spreadsheets to explore the racial/ethnic composition of New York City and the US using Census data from 1980, 1990 and 2000. They will start by interpreting stacked bar graphs for NYC and USA from Censusscope. After answering diversity-related questions from the bar graphs, sutdents build spreadsheets to explore the same questions using the actual numbers behind the graphs. The questions focus on percentages: the part-to-whole percentages of the various racial/ethnic groups and the percent changes from Census to Census. The module emphasizes the difficulties involved in talking about percentages, and comparing them, in an unambiguous way.

Learning Goals

Students will

  • Try to ascertain changing racial compositions from stacked bar graphs.

  • Build a spreadhseet to calculate each group's percentage of the total population using a spreadsheet.
  • Use the spreadsheet to plot line graphs of the Census-to-Census changes.
  • Expand the spreadsheet to calculate the absolute and relative change in size and percentage of each group from Census to Census.
  • Consider the difference between "the percentage of a group increased by 10%" and "the percentage of a group increased by 10 percentage points."
  • Compare the racial/ethnic diversity of NYC and the USA.
  • Be introduced to Censusscope and the official site of the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the process, the students will

  • Learn that questions can be answered with data.
  • Learn that there are alternative ways of presenting data.
  • Learn that diversity varies from place to place and that there are trends over time.
  • Learn to be careful when calculating, using, and discussing percentages.
  • Learn some of the basics of Excel spreadsheets.

Context for Use

This module is suitable for college level students sophomore and up.


  • Basic Excel functions
  • A 15- 20 minute review of concepts of rates, ratio, proportion and percentages.

Module itself: 2 1/2 -3 hours. Module could be an introduction to a course on race and ethnicity or a stand alone module in an urban sociology course.

Description and Teaching Materials

The module is a PowerPoint presentation with embedded spreadsheets. If the embedded spreadsheets are not visible, save the PowerPoint file to disk and open it from there.

The above PowerPoint files are the student version of the module. An instructor version is available by request. The instructor version includes the completed spreadsheet. Send your request to Len Vacher ( by filling out and submitting the Instructor Module Request Form.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teach in a computer lab. Let students work in teams. Make sure students are introduced to prerequisite of basic functions of Excel and practice on a few functions. Cut and paste function of a spreadsheet may be done here or within the module.


Pre and post tests not only for the modules but also for the pre-requisites to ensure students are comfortable with Excel.

References and Resources

Websites relevant to this module: