Strategy Share: What Data Can Teach You

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Anne Lewis, special projects director at the South Dakota Discovery Center in Pierre, South Dakota, after her expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Anne Lewis is a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Photo by Anne Lewis

Data can tell you an unexpected story. It can make you feel meaningfully connected to a place. And the best part is: anyone can do it. As ballistics expert Alex Jason said, “The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.

I’ll tell you a couple of data stories from my own life.

Last May, I went to Badlands National Park. I brought my camera to take pictures of flowers and insects to upload to iNaturalist, a species identification and documentation tool. I do this partly because I get a “wow” moment when I look back at my photos, partly to learn to identify organisms, and partly because I like contributing to the worldwide documentation of species.

On this particular trip, I was happy to get a photo of a tumblebug, more popularly known as a “poo beetle.”

When I later uploaded my picture of a tumblebug, I noticed another observation of an insect nearby. I had a little shock of recognition when I clicked on it. It was my own (forgotten) observation of another tumblebug, documented two years prior.

iNaturalist is a tool for identifying species and documenting species data. Photo by Anne Lewis

A second data story happened while I was a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow traveling around the Arctic. I brought along an infrared thermometer, the kind used to measure surface temperature. While at sea, I took readings of ice and open water over the side of the ship. No surprise, when I crunched the numbers, the ice was colder than the open sea. I remember sitting in the chart room looking at the average temperatures on my computer screen, feeling sober.

Scientists have been telling us for years that more open ocean meant more heat in Earth’s atmosphere and hydrosphere. (Check out this spectacular infographic on how that happens.) But seeing this reflected in my data gave it a personal connection that no scientist’s report ever could or would.

The takeaway from these stories is that collecting data is a worthwhile endeavor. It can teach you about yourself, and tell a surprising story. It can also deepen connections to places you encounter and information you know. After all, no data is as interesting as your own.

A student plots data on a map. Photo by Anne Lewis

I encourage all educators to make data collection part of their instruction, however it makes sense for their curriculum, even if they are not science teachers.

I’ll share a little bit more of my own learning curve in hopes of inspiring you (and sparing you a few of my mistakes.)

Start with a question. Give yourself permission to start with a question that does not automatically lead to a specific action project. The question can be almost anything:

  • What kind of plants and insects live on our campus?
  • What is the hottest it gets on our campus? The coldest?
  • If the sky is red at night, how often is there nice weather the next day?
  • How many cars, bikes, or other vehicles drive by our school every day?
  • How many times a day do we use the water fountain by the cafeteria?

Record the data. I can’t stress this enough. It is not enough to collect data, you must record it. You can create a spreadsheet. You can also contribute your data to a relevant citizen science project, but make sure you can retrieve it. Why do you want to be able to retrieve it? Because you should…

Use your data. Use your data not just with the group that collected it but with future groups. This data is authentic and local. Future groups will want to see how their data compared with previously collected data. Creating a historical dataset is useful for spotting trends and relationships. This analysis of the data can develop into questions that can lead to deeper study and even an action project. The National Geographic Geo-Inquiry Process has strategic steps you can take when those deeper questions start surfacing.

Use your data, part 2. Somewhat candidly, if students know that their data will be used not just for an academic exercise but in an authentic way, they are often motivated to put forth a little extra effort.

Collect data on something that offers variety and positive readings. If you live in a very arid area, collecting daily precipitation data may not be the best option as often your reading will be 0. Zero is a perfectly respectable reading, but after three weeks of nothing in the rain gauge, students may grow bored. Data collection does not have to be an ongoing project. It can be something you do as part of a specific unit. Ideally, whatever data you collect will be something you are curious about. Curiosity is contagious!

Finding a data collection opportunity can help make your curriculum authentic. It often leads to more questions, research, and action. After my little tumblebug epiphany, I wanted to know more about them, including how to protect them.

When kids collect data, they know this is no academic exercise—but rather a means to learn about their world.

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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