Data science minor offers summer program

National Science Foundation funds opportunity for LC students to learn from local STEM teachers

This summer, the data science minor will offer a program that will pair 10 local middle and high school teachers with undergraduate students interested in teaching science or math.

This program is funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that was originally awarded to Professor of Biology Greta Binford and her peers at the University of Arizona for their research related to conservation and management in urban and wild areas. The original grant amount of $527,734, which was awarded in the summer of 2021, was put towards implementing the data science minor at Lewis & Clark. An additional amount of $105,544 was awarded in 2022 to implement additional programming, including the forthcoming summer program. 

Along with directly funding data science classes, the grant has also led to the integration of a data science focus into some introductory numbers courses, biology classes and Watzek Library’s Data and Digital Services (Watzek 343). 

For Binford, members of these different communities coming together to promote data science education is powerful.

“It’s a collective of thoughtful, creative people that can think about how to very target the things that will be the most transformational for teaching these things,” Binford said. “But the ultimate goal is reaching students so I help them identify being empowered with these quantitative reasoning skills.”

According to the NSF grant, the summer program’s “overall goal … is development of scalable, portable data science education that can be readily incorporated into existing programs concentrating on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), with a focus on ecology, biodiversity, and conservation.” LC students will work with teachers to develop curriculum and co-teach it in order to fulfill this goal.

After teachers in the Portland area apply for the program and the schedule is set, a formal application will be sent to relevant undergraduate students, such as those who have taken a data science course or have indicated interest in the teacher pathways track. Twelve local teachers have currently indicated interest.

Binford reached out to Associate Professor of Education Liza Finkel to develop this partnership program. Finkel was initially hired in 2013 on a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which focused on connecting undergraduate math and science faculty with the graduate school. She is interested in continuing this connection outside of LC.

“One of the other things that I’m really interested in is making better connections between teachers who are out in the field and Lewis & Clark faculty who can support their work,” Finkel said. “Because I think that there’s a lot of learning that can happen on both sides.”

According to Finkel, once the initial material has been tested, undergraduates will come back the following summer to revise the lesson plans and to share them with other teachers. 

“(It will) also teach us a little bit about what they learned so that if we can continue this project we’ll have learned ourselves about how to do this work better,” Finkel said.

NSF Data Science Project Coordinator Mila Pruiett ’22, who took one of the initial data science classes offered last spring, is enthusiastic about the program.

“I’m really excited about getting teachers feedback on what they’re interested in their classrooms having,” Pruiett said. “So not just giving them a lesson that ‘you have to do this,’ but really trying to meet people.”

For Pruiett, the opportunity for current students to get hands-on experience is valuable. 

“They’re going to be in a classroom,” Pruiett said. “It’s like you’re getting some amazing real world experience while you’re an undergrad in data science, which is like a massively growing field and it’s not going anywhere. It’s like if you’re interested in it, these are all great opportunities to see if you like it and you know what facets of it specifically are interested in with it.”

Being in actual middle school and high school classrooms is also important to Finkel, who went on to emphasize the role of working with real data.

“The teachers and the students are working with real data, addressing real problems and then able to create authentic work that they can share back with the communities where the data matters,” Finkel said. “For me, it’s foundational to my thinking about what good science teaching looks like. (It) is providing opportunities for teachers and students to deal with issues that are real and that are interesting, and that concern them.”

The grant was initially able to create an additional position within Watzek Library’s Data and Digital Services. Digital and Data Science Specialist Ethan Davis has filled this role and also anticipates making data science more accessible to the community.

“We’re taking all of those available tools and applying them to existing knowledge bases that have been built up,” Davis said. “While we do have this new thing that is data science, really what we’re trying to do is kind of integrate it into our existing knowledge production systems.”

Binford has continued to work on this project and advocate for the use of data science as a tool because of the role she sees it play in education and the broader world.

“I don’t necessarily view myself even as a data scientist,” Binford said. “However, we’re living in this world where the piles of data are obscenely huge. Data are being used on our behalf all the time to make decisions, to manipulate. I think it’s really important for people to be able to critically evaluate the kind of data that’s been thrown at them.” 

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