Can Data Literacy Be Fun? The Census Bureau is developing an app for that

For data lovers, the release of new census data may seem like an extra Christmas every 10 years. But for K-12 students, that may not be the reason for the celebration. So how do you make that data accessible, relevant, and perhaps fun?

If you’re a U.S. Census Bureau, you call other students — like a team of ambitious data scientists from an American university.

A group of four graduate students is developing a free app to help teachers build data literacy skills in the classroom. They are working together Opportunity project, An event led by Federal Census Open Innovation Labs that brings together technicians and community advocates to address issues.

Hyman Wong, an American University data science graduate student, says, “Creating this app and seeing what other schools are doing reinforces how much community education is a community endeavor. “It’s great to see how teams can work together for a common goal, and this is definitely something you really need.”

American University is one of 10 universities that are part of the Fall Technology Development Sprint of Opportunity Project, which works with census data, focusing on designeal data accessibility. December marks the end of the 12-week program, and students will present beta versions of their app to the conference for participants.

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

The second tab creates tables based on data from income, ethnicity, and other populations. Here students can practice from just looking at the data to analyzing and interpreting. The team is creating a third section of the app to include resources where students and teachers can explore more about the field of census and data science.

“It’s a less playful, fun environment where students can play,” says Wong.

To date, the Opportunity Project, created by more than 1,500 participants, has provided nearly 150 open data tools, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The agency connected participants with K-12 education experts before coding began. Wong says her team learned from those conversations that high schools and elementary schools have a lot of data-literacy resources. It was secondary school that experienced a gap.

“So our focus was really on high school teachers and students,” says Wong. “We want students to think about data and be able to act on that data.”

Daudou Shi, a data science student and Wong’s teammate, says his app is another challenge to get young students interested in data.

“Sometimes it’s very boring for middle school students,” says Shi. “Our project helps teachers motivate their students and… helps them learn simple statistical methods.”

Richard Wrestler, associate director of the university’s data science programs and senior professor lecturer, says his census bureau partners suggest the app could be a useful data-literacy tool for teachers at any grade level.

“Our goal is to make high school students curious and ask them questions,” says Wrestler. So the American University team needs to cycle through the entire data science process during the sprint.

“They’re working on all the steps: how we’re going to measure it, how we’re going to measure it, how we’re going to model it, all the ways to deploy it,” he adds. “It’s a wonderful experience of what they’re going to do for the foreseeable future.”

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