The Chinese Railroad

Hook | Questions | Procedures | Data Investigation | Analysis | Findings | New Questions

Student Page

Michelle Anderson, Nicole Applebach, Alia Younis


The student page contains the hook only. It is intended to spark interest in the topic and lead students to ask questions or make predictions.

Depiction of Chinese Railroad Workers

It’s the 19th century and you’ve just arrived in an unknown land. You do not speak the language and do not understand the customs.  You are 13 years old and have signed on to build the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • How much do you think you will get paid?
  • What do you think the working conditions will be like?
  • How long do you think it will take to build the Railroad?

First, the students will be introduced to the topic of the Chinese workers' influence on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  Next, the whole class will create a KWL chart about the Chinese influence on the Railroad. 

  • K- What do the students already know?  What can students derive from their prior knowledge and experience about the topic? 
  • W-  What questions do we want to answer about the topic? 
  • L- After their research, what have they learned about the topic?  Finally, they will create a concept map using resources from websites such as the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum and American Memory. 


Students might ask similar but different questions than those listed here. The more students are guided to ask specific questions, the less inquiry-oriented the activity.

The goal of this project is for students to understand and appreciate the influence of the Chinese immigrants on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  Students will search for important resources to answer the following main question:
  • What was the Chinese experience during the time of construction of the transcontinental railroad?

There might be a list of sub-questions that will be asked as well.  These are guiding questions to  point the students in the direction of answering the main question.

    1.  How do you think the Chinese immigrants of the mid nineteenth century contributed in creating an environment, which could sustain the rapid growth, and development, which was occurring in California during that time?

    2.  Do you think the Chinese felt that building the transcontinental railroad was a good employment opportunity?  Why or why not?

    3.  How did racism and prejudice affect the lives of the Chinese immigrants living in California in the mid nineteenth century?


After students have asked questions related to the topic, they will need to decide a number of things, including:

  • Type(s) of data needed to answer the questions
  • Defining important terms
  • Choosing tools for data manipulation
  • Defining how data will be manipulated and presented

Type(s) of Data

Students will use the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum and American Memory Digital Resource websites to find:
       *magazine articles    

Defining Important Terms (from Merriam-Webster)

~transcontinental- extending or going across a continent
~exclusion-   1) the act of preventing or restricting the entrance of
                      2) the act of expelling or barring especially from a place or position previously                           occupied
~immigrant- a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence

Investigation Tool(s)

In order to procede with the investigation, students will add to the KWL chart each day and create a concept map using Inspiration to keep track of their findings.

Manipulating Data

As a class, we will come together and record our individual findings on our KWL chart each day.  Each student will be in charge of collecting and adding information to their concept map. 

Data Investigation

There is often a giant leap from defining the type(s) of data desired and actually finding the data. Providing guidance to students in finding the necessary data may be necessary.

Web Inquiry Projects use data/information other people have gathered and placed online. Part of the inquiry process is finding the needed information. 

*Students are provided with a list of web sites where they can search to find the data they need:

1.  The Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum at:

2.  The Chinese American Museum at:

3.  American Memory at:


Raw data/information usually has to be manipulated before it can answer any questions. Students might be unaware of how data can best be manipulated, so teacher guidance may be appropriate.

After looking at the Digital Resources provided above and gathering information, students will create their concept maps.  Here is an example of the first step of asking questions about the topic and starting a concept map:

The second step is to find information using the Digital Resources to answer the first question:

The third step is to continue gathering information to answer the remaining questions (click on concept map below to see larger image):

The final step in the development of the concept map is to organize, insert images, and double check the links (click on the concept map below to bring up a larger image with attached links):


No result is meaningful unless communicated appropriately. Discussion of findings should be supported. There may or may not be definitive answers to the questions students raised.

*  Students will complete the KWL chart as a class.

*  The students will share their project with the class in a presentation showing their finished concept maps and explaining their findings. 

*  Each student will be required to write about the most interesting thing they found during their investigation.

Possible New Questions

Answers often lead to new questions, starting the inquiry cycle over again.

Here are some follow up questions to futher their research:

  • What technologies did the Chinese provide from their homeland that helped them in their experience building the railroad?
  • At what point in history did the Chinese become more accepted into American society?