Data, data everywhere
Data Thrills in the Air, in Motion and at the Ballet
“Look at mine!” exclaimed a 3rd grade girl who had just topped the classroom record for the highest recorded level of CO2 in her exhaled breath. The ten students participating in the data logging pilot program each took turns breathing on the CO2 sensor, trying to beat the record, and finally, one bright student came up with the idea of holding her breath, and the line graph displayed on the computer screen went off the charts to everyone’s amazement and dismay!
When we hear the word “data” most people reach for the snooze button and fight to stay awake. The word conjures images of numbers, graphs and spreadsheets that most people, especially our K12 students, find boring. But in 2019, when instant communications connect us with work, friends and family potentially anywhere on the planet, the ability to read, interpret and understand data has never been more important. How do we inspire a new generation of conscientious global citizens to be passionate about understanding data and how it impacts our daily lives? The very fate of our planet and species depends on solving this challenge since decisions are made every day based on what we think are facts, but may not be accurate. Understanding the data we share, how it is gathered, interpreted and verified as real or fake may possibly be the most significant skill set for educated people living in the 21st century.
Data surrounds us and envelopes us every second of every day of our existence. It’s in the air we breathe and in the movement of our bodies as we walk, run or leap. It’s in the sunlight on our face, the breeze that lifts our kite and the clouds that float through a data rich blue sky. It’s also in the loyalty card we use at the grocery store, the cookies that follow us on our Internet travels, the traffic stop camera tracking us at the intersection, the news we read and the television shows we watch. With today’s friendly and approachable STEM tools, learning to see this data, this invisible, magical blanket of information, offers a fascinating opportunity for educators and parents to explore the world in new ways with young and growing minds.
Back in the classroom, a lively discussion about why the girl’s CO2 exhalation ran off the charts brings the data in the air we breathe to life.
“Who knows why some people exhale higher amounts of CO2?” is the question.
“It has to do with how fast you breathe.”
“It depends on your age.”
“It might be if you’re a girl or boy.”
“It’s what you eat.”
And the discussion ranges all over, eventually circling back to the girl who held her breath. Why does holding your breath make a difference? These kinds of scenarios provide natural learning moments where students build their knowledge of how the world works and construct their own understanding of how it applies to their own life and existence. Providing these kinds of rich learning opportunities when teaching STEM in elementary classrooms can make a difference in a student’s life by bringing the math and the science that drives our world to life.
My wife, several friends and myself spend a lot of time thinking about this since we’re building a sensor-loaded classroom device for teaching STEM – what can make the data we gather more interesting? My wife loves beautiful product design, teaching and coming up with ideas that will captivate and engage students. My friends are engineers who work with loads of data and spend their time writing code, designing circuit boards and watching 3D product designs evolve in real-time on their computer screens. It’s amazing to watch. The entire team loves challenges – they dirt bike, make plans to sail across the Pacific, surf, do yoga, hike and interact with the world in a lot of fun and different ways – all character traits essential to good teachers since the world is the most exciting classroom of all. Some of the data experiences we’ve brainstormed are hilarious, many of them impractical, but all bring data to life in strange and wonderful ways. A great example is catapult physics. In this experiment, you launch a motion sensor and data logging device the length of a football field and gather data through the entire flight path, then analyze the data with students together as a group. Repeat and attach to a hot air balloon, kite or use a slingshot and see how many Gs of force you can generate. Once you go down this road all kinds of possibilities open up – stunt riding your dirt bike and collecting data on acceleration, velocity and orientation. Take your data logger skydiving, skateboarding, skating or running. Hang it off your dog’s collar and go play frisbee catch.
You read and capture data like this using a sensor called an accelerometer. Accelerometers are a lot of fun and everywhere now since they are embedded in most phones. When you rotate your phone and the screen changes orientation, that’s an accelerometer at work. Apply this to anything that moves now and think about the associated data – what could be fun and interesting? My daughter wants to attach these sensors to dancers and visualize the data associated with a pirouette or a grand jete. What about a gymnast, a sprinter, a slalom skier or martial artist? The opportunity to make data interesting and relevant to individuals with something like an accelerometer is enormous.
Sergiu Baluta, a software developer and hardware engineer, embedded an accelerometer into a soccer ball and created an application that can tell a coach, or a player, how hard they are striking the ball, what kind of spin they are putting on it and so on. The product, “Inside Coach,” even has app based challenges and games to help build your soccer playing prowess.
Up Close and Personal
Beyond motion, what’s interesting and relevant about other kinds of data? Getting back to the original third grade experiment and testing for CO2, many opportunities for real science and real data abound within sensors that test for gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When you breathe on a sensor and you see elevated levels of CO2 detected you begin to understand the science behind data and how we can use this data to measure what is going on in the world around us. Further, once you measure something, you can begin to evaluate if it is something that might be improved. CO2 and VOCs are invisible to the naked eye, but both exist in the air we breathe every day. A good example of a VOC is the odor you smell when you take the top off a magic marker. Opening a can of paint, taking the top off a bottle of bathroom cleaner or the smell of gasoline in the garage all fall into the category of VOCs, which, over time, can have serious health effects on an individual. In addition to detection and measurement, this is where data starts to become highly relevant. Trying to create a safer, healthier environment based on real data, personally collected and evaluated, is a perfect example of relevance in an educational experience. When learning is up close and real and has a strong connection to a person’s own experiences, it sticks.
In 2017 Laura Sanders Arndt founded an organization in Colorado called Global GreenSTEM that leverages this up-close and personal approach to learning, and it really works. The organization develops highly personal and relevant experiences for students by localizing STEM curriculum and activities to needs within their community.
In an example related to the CO2 experiments described above, students use STEM supplies, sensors, to investigate parking lot ground ozone and other VOCs released from idling cars of parents as they wait to drop off and pick up their children at schools. Students share the data in an educational campaign of informational signs, brochures and emails, and provide ongoing data feedback to the school community to show their success in reducing ozone/VOCs as car-idling habits decrease. Students experience the power of data to solve a problem affecting themselves and their community.
In another example of teaching STEM through localizing learning, Global GreenSTEM is collaborating with Native American educators from the American Indian Academy of Denver, to develop an indigenized STEAM curriculum that creates a bridge between indigenous knowledge and conventional science. Through this approach, Colorado Science Standards and data analysis become culturally and personally relevant, and honoring and empowering of indigenous ways of knowing. Students will be using this blended understanding (indigenous and conventional) to investigate, collect data, and offer solutions to local as well as reservation problems that are meaningful to them.
When students extend beyond the borders of local communities and recognize that they have the power to impact the larger world around them, remarkable things can happen. A Colorado high school class demonstrated this as they became personally committed to helping South Africa’s Winnie Mabasa Foundation provide lights to some shacks in a squatter village that had never had electricity. Students met with Global GreenSTEM and researched designs for building LED and solar lights from plastic bottles. Imagine the power of this relevant learning approach to inspire students around the planet to collaborate with each other to investigate local issues and design solutions for them. These real-world projects naturally empower cross-cultural relationships that spark empathy while expanding student experience in using science-engineering practices to solve purposeful problems. Imagine a global community of students working together to solve planetary-scale challenges.
Planetary-scale data is where the numbers become so mind boggling, they’re hard to grasp. When numbers get that large, the data can become too abstract, too hard to visualize. Raj Kapoor, one of the founders of the India STEM Alliance (ISA), recently sent me a copy of ISA’s India Impact Report, and the numbers within it related to India alone are enormous.
Half the Indian population is under the age of 25, making it a very, very young country. The number of people under the age of 24? Five hundred seventy nine million. Imagine mobilizing 500 million young minds with STEM classroom materials to help solve the world’s problems. Agni’s Ignite India Science Project Competition is an initiative with just that goal in mind, providing challenges and resources to “ignite” the minds of the participants to identify problems and innovate to solve them. Beyond the school competitions, additional layers to the Ignite India program provide pathways for the brightest of innovators to go on and even patent their work that will contribute to India’s future. Within this framework, students collecting local data using devices such as a CO2 and VOC sensor, or specialized sensors for air pollution that measure particulate matter could make a significant impact to improve quality of life in their community, exactly the type of outcome envisioned by Laura Sanders Arndt and Global GreenSTEM
Ramadan Aliti, the CEO of the Center for Education and Innovative Learning – STEMLab in Tetovo, Macedonia sees STEM education and the mobilization of youth advocates as a clear path to clear air. The air quality in Tetovo can be very bad and dangerous enough to health that schools are closed.
“Institutions have no solutions for this issue, the air quality in this country.”
– Ramadan Aliti
We recently spoke about his need in the center for STEM lab equipment – particulate matter sensors that can measure PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations in the air. With a set of mobile sensors that could be deployed and managed by students to monitor indoor and outdoor air quality levels in different schools in different parts of the city, a case could be presented to the local authorities advocating for changes in policy and regulations. Positive contributions to the local government to gain their support include identifying areas of the city with high air quality that can be promoted for tourism. Grass roots activism based on hard, scientific data seems like a hard combination to beat.
When Hard Data Meets Disbelief – the Need for Critical Thinking
With the advent of advanced communications technologies we now experiences almost instantaneous news from thousands of sources. In many ways this brings our world closer together. A tragedy in Pakistan, Istanbul or Malaysia shows up in our news feed as quickly as news about the local convenience store up the street being robbed. News also streams into our social media feeds, co-mingling with updates from our friends, co-workers and family members who then, in turn comment and share their opinions. This non-stop stream of information becomes problematic however when we begin to assume it is all accurate information, when it may not be. Today it is easily possible to manipulate data and present facts in a credible format – this information can look just as valid as the most vetted and reputable news organization. A great example, that we see almost every day now, is the regular “fake news” back-and-forth between President Trump and a number of news organizations including CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, and The New York Times. These news organizations have reported on various issues and President Trump, for example, has said:
“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
– President Donald Trump
As logical, educated individuals how do we reconcile such powerful and diametrically opposed statements? Who is correct? The President of the United States, one of the most respected roles in the world, or five well respected news organizations? Both sources should be reputable based on history and experience. So how do we decide?
Critical thinking defines the educated person who doesn’t immediately jump to conclusions or make significant decisions without first evaluating the facts and the data at hand. Instinct also plays a large role in making significant decisions when all the facts are not available, but it is almost always tempered and formed by an individual’s experience and knowledge. Critical thought involves a dispassionate collection and analysis of the data that supports or negates each of the positions described above, and coming to a conclusion based on facts–even when the facts conflict with what you initially believed or may want to believe. This is the nature of science and this is the core of critical thinking. To determine the truth between the positions of President Trump and the five news organizations you must do research, you must check the sources of your data and you must be dispassionate about your analysis.
In another example, on November 23rd, 2018 the Fourth National Climate Assessment Vol II was released. Authored with contributions from 13 federal agencies it presented findings that climate change caused by man-made actions poses a direct threat to the safety and economy of the United States. According to the New York Times the 1,656 page report was precise, direct and in-fact blunt about the reality of climate change. Three days later President Trump said “I don’t believe it,” again providing critical thinkers around the world a moment to reflect on “what’s true?”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has contributed an extraordinary amount of intellectual property, innovation and thought leadership to the world since its founding in 1861. Fifty years ago a small group of students and scientists at MIT founded a national nonprofit organization called the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that today has grown to an organization of over 250 scientists, analysts and experts dedicated to solving “our planet’s most pressing problems.” The charter of the organization is to fight political and corporate special interests that are in opposition to the facts known and provable by science. The organization is funded by donations from individuals and foundations and takes no funding from corporations or government agencies to avoid any potential for conflict of interest. When we hear this background and mission this sounds like a truly reputable source that critical thinkers can turn to for a good fact check. However, there are many dissenters that say the UCS is not telling the truth, they are actually fabricating a climate hoax to drive fear and gather more donations for operating and growing the organization. The UCS backs the findings of the National Climate Assessment – along with the 13 federal agencies that contributed to the report. Again, how do we, as critical thinkers, know for sure who is telling the truth?
The Data We Share
How did we make this rather strange journey from an excited 3rd grader studying CO2 in Idaho to students in India, Colorado and Macedonia working to build a better world to the tale of the President of the United States being at odds with news organizations? Data weaves the common thread through all these stories. Critical thinkers seek and evaluate data regularly and use it to make good decisions for themselves, their organizations and their friends and loved ones. As educators, we must advance critical thinking skills whenever possible and teach our students to go beyond the appearance on the surface, or even the recommendations we might hear from a trusted friend. We must learn to judge for ourselves with a critical eye. Public domain data from governments, foundations and individuals accumulates second by second, hour by hour and day by day documenting everything from financial markets to CO2 levels in our atmosphere. It belongs to you. It belongs to me. Its presence creates a sacred trust with each of us to treat it with respect and invest the time required to understand it and, when necessary, act on it. It’s our future planetary health. It’s the future of our species. It’s the data we share.
- Grover, R. (2018). The Cave of Dogs – A Virtual Reality Science Mystery, ICERI2018 Proceedings, pp. 4334-4342.
- Baluta, S. (2018). Inside Coach Inc. Personal interview.
- Arndt, L. (2019). Global GreenSTEM Inc. Personal interview.
- India STEM Alliance (2019). The India Impact Report.
- Aliti, R. (2019). The Center for Education and Innovative Learning – STEMLab, Tetovo, Macedonia. Personal interview.
- Pak, N., Seyler, M. (2018). ABC News: “Trump calls ‘fake news’ media ‘the real enemy of the people’ over Putin summit.” Retrieved January 29, 2019, from
- Trump, D. (2018). Speech to Veterans Association July 25, 2018. Retrieved January 29, 2019, from BBC News, Donald Trump: ‘What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening’,
- NCA4 Vol II: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States (Report) (2018). National Climate Assessment. 2. November 23, 2018. Retrieved November 23, 2018.
- King, L. USA Today (2018). President Trump on dire economic forecast of climate change report: ‘I don’t believe it.’ Retrieved January 29, 2019, from
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, January 28). Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:21, January 29, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Massachusetts_Institute_of_Technology&oldid=880698191
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, January 16). Union of Concerned Scientists. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:24, January 29, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Union_of_Concerned_Scientists&oldid=878689404
- Briggs, W. (2017). Union of Concerned Scientists Hates Truth About Global Warming. Retrieved January 29, 2019, from https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/union-of-concerned-scientists-hates-truth-about-global-warming?source=policybot
About the Author
Robert Grover is a proponent of STEAM education and educational technology that helps engage and develop the students of today into the thoughtful leaders of tomorrow.