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Bringing data into the classroom

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Children will inherit a world awash with data. Pioneering hands-on-lessons are showing school pupils how data literacy can boost everything from PE to art and give them a head start in the future economy.

Pupils across south-east Scotland are being primed to embrace a world shaped more and more by dizzying amounts of data.

A dynamic team of educationalists, based at Edinburgh, is creating imaginative online content to guide children and young people through an increasingly complex digital landscape.

Engaging, interactive lessons are helping pupils better understand the tidal wave unleashed by previously unimaginable computing power and eye-watering data storage capacity.

With this flood of information – swelled by smart phones, social media and online selling – comes a demand for meaningful analysis, which the Data Education in Schools project is seeking to address.

Equipping tomorrow’s workforce so it can meet that need will, the project team says, help drive economic growth and facilitate game-changing research that tackles real-world challenges.

Skills Gateway

Data Education in Schools is part of a £661m initiative called the DDI Skills Gateway, which is a key strand of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

The £1.3bn Deal, announced in 2018, aims to drive growth for everyone across the region and includes investment in transport, housing, culture and skills and employability.

The teaching project, based in the University’s School of Education and Sport, started in 2019 when the team began exploring how data literacy could become part of the secondary school curriculum.

“We know the pressures teachers face, so it’s best to integrate data literacy into other subjects,” says Kate Farrell, the project’s director of curriculum development and professional learning.

“We identified opportunities for pupils to look at data in cool new ways, taking topics that you wouldn’t instantly think are about data science, such as music, social studies and even PE.”

Pupil with computer and dummy
A pupil at the Data Town event learns about health data

Data literacy

One such example is the DataFit series of lessons for upper primary and lower secondary classes, which sought to simultaneously improve data literacy and pupils’ understanding of physical activity.

This introduction to activity-monitoring devices teaches students how tracking steps or sleep can be helpful, and also encourages them to consider how they feel about phones collecting personal data.

“Many don’t realise their phone is tracking their step count by virtue of sitting in their pockets,” says Kate. “It’s intriguing to see how little some learners know about the data that’s being saved.”

DataFit is typical of the project’s approach, which takes an easily relatable topic and introduces aspects of data science in a fun and accessible way.

Protecting wildlife

So too is Defend the Rhino, which is based on a real life case study in which conservationists and technologists use artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to help save endangered wildlife.

Screenshot of Defend the Rhino
The Defend the Rhino online sessions have been incredibly popular, attracting 10,000 players

The live lesson – accessed by more than 10,000 learners – focuses on stopping a gang of rhino poachers and invites pupils to use data science skills to analyse CCTV data from a South African national park.

Defend the Rhino enables learners to create Artificial Intelligence models that teach computers to recognise images of poachers, and encourages pupils to work together and catch the thieves.

Self portraits

In another project, pupils have been encouraged by the project team to create a data-driven piece of digital art about the person they know best – themselves.

Participants coded their own self-portrait, using data visualisation software, to create an abstract drawing based on the data that they chose to share.

Pupils were able to look behind the code to discover how it works – and see if they could decode data selfies of famous figures.

Other sessions have looked at how data can deepen understanding of coronavirus, highlight trends in Scottish census returns and inform the creative decisions made by musical artists.

Screenshot of data selfie

COP26 event

In an upcoming session that coincides with the COP26 climate change conference, pupils will learn how data science can help cut their school’s carbon footprint. The lesson launches on 9 November.

A subsequent session will encourage pupils to analyse a range of data so they can better understand how agricultural technology might help produce safe, nutritious and affordable food.

“The aim,” says Professor Judy Robertson, Chair in Digital Learning, “is to empower students with the tools they need to more fully understand complex events and to make informed choices about real-world events.”

The project team, which works with science communicator Craig Steele and Skills Development Scotland, has developed productive partnerships with several local schools in the City Deal region.

Schools initiatives

Collaborations have included working with pupils at Newbattle High School to create data-based resources that can be used to develop fitness and physical activity.

The team has also helped pupils at Balerno High School gather and present data that is linked to their science, engineering and mathematics projects.

And, in tandem with pupils at Braidburn School, the team has assessed data linked to plastic pollution to help the school shapes its recycling strategies.

All of this part of a wider effort that has seen the project team deliver the new National Progress Award qualification in Data Science – aimed at upper secondary students, colleges and workplaces.

“It’s an introduction that reflects the ethos we promote among even the youngest learners,” says Prof Robertson. “We want them to know that although data science might sound scary, it is hugely important.”

Picture credit: pupils and robot/pupil and dummy – Lesley Martin