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STEM Initiative Aims to Help Students Grapple With 'Oceans of Data'

At a time when researchers in science and related fields are compiling vast quantities of readily available data, a new initiative is designed to help students and educators make use of that information to inform and inspire learning.

The new Oceans of Data Institute, created by the Waltham, Mass.-based Education Development Center (EDC), will develop and test digital tools and curriculum materials, conduct research, and host workshops to promote the infusion of "big data" into STEM coursework across the K-16 spectrum, according to a press release.

"The increasing availability of digital, sharable data presents a huge opportunity for society to answer whole new kinds of important questions," said EDC senior research scientist Ruth Krumhansl in the press release. "To meet the promise of big data, students today need to become proficient in data-based inquiry skills that move well beyond those taught in traditional science and mathematics classrooms."

In a phone interview, Krumhansl, who is directing the institute, said the idea behind this initiative stems back several years to conversations with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

"They are involved in this large initiative called the Oceans Observatory initiative, putting all these probes into the ocean and collecting large amounts of digital data that can be shared among scientists," she said. "This isn't just happening in oceanography, it's happening in all of the sciences. Data is becoming available in this digital, sharable form."

Krumhansl said it became apparent that this held great promise for the classroom. "It provided the opportunity for students to build on in-class experiences they've traditionally had, doing experiments, collecting data, to be able to actually work with professionally collected data about the world, real data," she said. But one big problem was a lack of research and understanding on how best to involve students in working with such data, she said.

EDC has already played a lead role in a number of projects that will inform the work of the Oceans of Data Institute, including crafting guidelines for the development of computer interfaces that are accessible to students and teachers. (This report was jointly developed with the Scripps institution and was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.) And EDC is just now completing work on a yearlong course called Foundations Science:Earth Science.

"It is a full-year earth-science course that is very data-intensive," she said. "In that, for example, there is a ... fairly sizable unit on climate, and students spend a lot of time studying professionally collected data to understand from the evidence what is happening. There is also a chapter on plate tectonics," which includes study of the earthquake models from the Southern California Earthquake Center.

This course, she said, was guided by the National Research Council framework for the Next Generation Science Standards.

In addition, EDC is working on a project called Ocean Tracks with the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University. "We're putting together a Web interface on marine-animal tracking data," Krumhansl said. "It allows students to very quickly display the tracks of great white sharks, blue-fin tuna," and other animals.

The Oceans of Data Institute recognizes that "this is a whole new area of work," Krumhansl said, and so requires conversations between experts across fields, including educators, education researchers, scientists, technology developers, and cognitive researchers "to try to understand how to involve students with these data."

The press release notes that developing students' skills in working with large data sets will be important to many future STEM jobs.

At the same time, another important goal of the initiative is to excite and inspire students to pursue further STEM learning. And Krumhansl notes, the effort will help student to begin to think and act like scientists.

"We feel like this is a fabulous way to engage students in the practices of science," she said.

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