Ocean Tracks: Immersing students in complex data

“Data drives discovery, decision-making, and innovation. … However, our current education systems have not been equipped to produce either the workforce or the citizenry with the skills, knowledge and judgment to make wise use of the data streams that our technologies are delivering.” A Call for Action for Promote Data Literacy Workshop for Building Global Data Literacy, October 2015

The statement above, crafted and signed by a panel of experts in data analytics and education, conveys the importance of dramatically reforming our K-16 education systems to better prepare students for a data-driven workforce and society.  But what does that mean? What are the skills we need to be teaching that we aren’t teaching now? And what are effective ways of teaching these skills?

Since its inception, the Oceans of Data Institute has been on a quest to understand the new kinds of knowledge and data skills we should be engendering in students, and we’ve been working intensively in classrooms to develop and test effective strategies for teaching data skills. We’ve pushed to build on and move students beyond the work with data they have traditionally been doing in classrooms, and to engage them with the more complex data sets and problem-solving strategies that are at the core of today’s “big data” – driven workforce and society.

Our NSF-funded Ocean Tracks program is one such effort. Ocean Tracks was designed to give students new kinds of opportunities to grapple with CLIP complex (including a variety of data types, collected using varied methodologies and instruments), large (including more data than are appropriate to answer any particular question), interactive (offering choices about what data to examine and how to visualize and analyze that data), professionally-collected (going beyond what students are able to collect themselves)—data sets.

Ocean Tracks intentionally provides students with access to data from satellite-tagged marine animals including white sharks, blue fin tuna, elephant seals and albatross collected as part of the Census for Marine Life. Students explore this data (as well as related oceanographic data from NASA and NOAA) through a student-friendly interface we created to give them the tools they need to do many of the same type of analyses done by professional scientists.

Ocean Tracks challenges students to apply data literacy skills that are important well beyond these particular data sets—such as how to select data that are appropriate to explore a particular question, how to think critically about the limitations of these data, how to use multiple lines of evidence to support a claim, and how to persist when the data don’t reveal quick, clear answers.

Our pilots in high school and undergraduate classrooms so far have yielded promising signs that Ocean Tracks engages students in developing these critical data skills. We’ve also learned (not surprisingly) that working with complex, authentic, “messy” data sets is challenging for students, and requires sustained effort on the part of both students and teachers.

In future blogs, we’ll be sharing more of what we’re learning from our Ocean Tracks research. Beyond our formal classroom testing, we know that Ocean Tracks has been accessed by students and teachers in every state in the U.S. and in 80 countries on every continent around the world.

I have to admit that your website completely changed my work [as an] Italian science teacher. I’m using your website nearly every day. My students are so engaged in working [on it] at home (can you believe it?)… I didn’t know it would have been possible.” – Matteo Cattadori, Teacher

We're excited about this and would like to provide a forum for those using Ocean Tracks to share their experiences with us and with each other. We’ve invited Julianne Mueller-Northcott, a teacher and one of the creators of Ocean Tracks who has logged hundreds of hours using Ocean Tracks with her high school students over the past three years, to help facilitate this forum by sharing her classroom experiences, including ideas for classroom activities, via this blog. So stay tuned and join the conversation!

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