Getting youth excited about data

At the end of July, the GovLab Academy finished delivering in Washington, DC, two sessions of the US Department of Agriculture’s first Open Data Summer Camp for middle and high school students. The experience was, by all accounts, highly successful. After each 2-week program, both students and parents reported that we were able to build awareness of and enthusiasm for using data to make important decisions. On the final day of the high school session, one of the parents made a point of telling us that, thanks to the program, her son now had a good idea of what he wanted to study in his senior year and in college.

Team presentation

Team presentation on challenges of gathering data

The USDA, under the leadership of Joyce Hunter, its Deputy CIO, Policy and Planning, undertook this experiment because it recognized that, although, data-driven decision making is gaining traction within both government and society at large, not enough youth are developing the necessary skills to participate effectively. As departments and agencies at all levels of government open massive amounts of data in most areas of their operations – transportation, health, education, and agriculture, for example – the need for such skills will only increase. No short summer program can, of course, close this gap. But it can, perhaps, offer “proof of concept” for an approach that creates the kind of awareness, interest, and excitement likely to lead students to choose the courses and programs that will, over time, prepare them for such careers. We believe these inaugural summer camps did just that.

Camp participants during a field trip to a USDA facility in Beltsville, Maryland.

Camp participants during a field trip to a USDA facility in Beltsville, Maryland

The curriculum developed and delivered by the GovLab organized the students into small teams working on data analysis and visualization projects linked to specific USDA data sets, such as Food Consumption and Nutrient Intakes, Major Land Uses, and Price Spreads from Farm to Consumer. Through classroom exercises, hands-on instruction, talks by relevant USDA experts, field trips to a USDA farm and IT center, and original survey research, students learned how to gather, read, clean analyze, and visually present data in clear and compelling ways. On the final day of each session, each team used data visualization tools such as Illustrator and Tableau to present their findings to their peers, families, and a top-level group of USDA officials.

Students working on their final presentations.

Students working on their final presentations

Students working with a data set on Major Land Uses in all the states, for example, decided to make their findings more accessible by focusing on land use patterns just in the states from which their parents came. They also decided to translate abstract metrics – like the land area covered by an acre – into something much more easily grasped – the land area covered, roughly, by a football field. This helped them design clear, comparative visualizations of different sizes and magnitudes.

Another group decided to take a deeper look into coffee consumption in the US, where the data on how much money gets spent on coffee far outdistances comparable expenditures elsewhere in the world. This, in turn, led them to recent scientific research on caffeine, from which they developed a series of guidelines to use with their families to see if they were “addicted”.

Still another group looked at domestic sugar prices and usage, — seemingly, a rather dry topic until they discovered that the prices were falling. Why was that? Until then, few had heard (and virtually none had thought) about “High Fructose Corn Syrup.” Neither had most of the people they surveyed on the National Mall. With this new awareness of different types of sweeteners, they took a hard look at the ingredients and the health implications of the sugary sodas they were drinking on a regular basis.

Participants aged 12-14 during field trip to USDA Research facility

Participants aged 12-14 during field trip to USDA Farm and Research facility

From both these open data sessions, we take away the very clear lesson that, if managed with care, it is quite possible to get teenagers genuinely enthusiastic about working with data.

There were lessons learned, as well, about the learning needs and challenges of the different age groups. The 12-14 year olds, for example, had a more difficult time with critical and creative thinking but were much quicker to grasp new computer programs and tools like Excel and wanted to do everything possible online. The 15-17 year olds were not quite so online focused but had a much better instinct for how to frame problems and formulate research questions about data.

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Participants ages 15-17 during field trip

The learning program for USDA’s Open Data Summer Camp was designed and delivered by the faculty leader Anze Zadel and teaching assistants Hannah Pierce and Wendy Michel under the guidance of The Governance Lab (Alan Kantrow, Chief Learning Officer, and Maria Hermosilla, Graduate Research Assistant). The Governance Lab would like to thank Monsanto, Hewlett Packard, Leidos, Dovel Technologies, Binary Group, and IBM for the generous support that made this program possible.

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