Thursday, August 31, 2006

Using Data

In my real life, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how people (particularly students) can use and understand, so called, "real-time data." Data analysis in any form is a vital skill. It's how people learn about the world. Whether studying the environment, business or social interactions, observations are reduced to data and then visualized and explained in such a way that attempts to make sense of underlying processes driving the world around us.

While this skill is essential, it's not well appreciated. Countless studies point to the need to improve students' graph reading capabilities. But reading a graph is only one part of understanding data, though it might be the easiest part to test. Only by understanding where data comes from, how graphs are made, and how one might assimilate multiple datasets together to find relationships, can a greater understanding prevail.

So how can we increase the data analysis capabilities of students, such that they understand its usefulness in their lives?

Of course there is no easy answer, but by using compelling datasets that 1) portray a fun and engaging story and 2) are relevant to students' lives and experiences, we can ensure they keep their interest in the data, and subsequently how one goes about visualizing data and understanding its underlying processes.

In oceanography, we use real-time data to entice students into learning about the ocean and issues that affect them.

But there are lots of other fun ways of presenting data, and this recent post from David Pogue on the changing patterns of Baby Names shows that even seemingly obscure topics are ripe for data analysis by students.

Have you seen a dataset or graph lately that has compelled you to think differently about a subject than you had before?