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Can Data Literacy Be Fun? The Census Bureau is in the process of creating an app for this

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For data buffs, releasing new census data probably feels like an extra Christmas every 10 years. But for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students, odds are that’s not quite a cause for celebration. So how do you make this data accessible, relevant and maybe even fun?

If you’re the US Census Bureau, you bring in other students, like a team of aspiring data scientists from American University.

The group of four graduate students are creating a free app to help teachers develop their data literacy skills in the classroom. They work hand in hand with the Opportunity project, a program run by the Federal Open Innovation Labs of the Census that brings together technologists and community advocates to solve problems.

“Building this app and seeing what other schools are doing reinforces how education is a community effort,” says Haiman Wong, a data science graduate student at the American University. “It’s great to see how teams can work together towards a goal, and it’s definitely something that we need a lot more.”

American University is one of 10 universities working with census data as part of the Opportunity Project’s fall tech development sprint, which focuses on accessibility of decadal data. December will mark the end of the 12-week program, and students will present beta versions of their app at a conference for attendees.

The students created the app using R, an open source programming language. The app opens to reveal an interactive map with data for the 50 states. Students are introduced to data science terms and asked to answer questions based on the map, which Wong calls “knowledge checks.”

A second tab generates graphs based on income, ethnicity, and other demographics. This is where students can practice moving from simply visualizing data to analysis and interpretation. The team is in the process of creating a third section of the app to include resources where students and educators can learn more about the census and the field of data science.

“It’s a fun, low-stakes environment where students can have fun,” says Wong.

The Opportunity Project has produced nearly 150 open data tools created by more than 1,500 participants to date, according to the US Census Bureau.

The agency connected participants with K-12 education experts even before coding began. Wong says his team realized during those conversations that high schools and elementary schools have many resources when it comes to data literacy. It was the college that experienced a gap.

“It really motivated our attention to teachers and high school students,” says Wong. “We want students to think about the data and be able to act on that data.”

Daudou Shi, a data science student and teammate at Wong, says their app aims at another challenge to get young students interested in data.

“Sometimes it’s too boring for college kids,” Shi says. “Our project helps teachers to motivate their students and… helps to learn simple statistical methods.

Richard Ressler, associate director of the university’s data science programs and senior lecturer, said their partners at the Census Bureau suggested the app could be a useful data literacy tool for teachers at all levels. .

“Our goal is to arouse the curiosity of these college students and get them to ask questions,” explains Ressler. This forced the American University team to go through the entire data science process during the sprint.

“They work on all stages: how are we going to measure it, shape it, build a model, until it is deployed,” he adds. “It’s a really great experience of what they’re going to do for the foreseeable future.”


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