In a book by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, they share the story of how the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were astonished when Google announced that it could predict the spread of winter flu, even regionally, simply by tracking what people were searching for. This rise in access to information that predicts and affects human behaviour may be surprising for many of us, but for today’s students the collection and manipulation of such data is likely to become common place in their lives.

It was this that piqued my interest in attending the Royal Society’s CPD on Big Data in Schools.

I wondered how we could use Big Data to engage students in understanding the world around them, as well as the world we are shaping. Would it be possible to give students access to the accumulating data in an authentic way?

Teachers at the keynote talk of the CPD: using 'big data' in the classroom

Teachers at the keynote talk of the CPD: using ‘big data’ in the classroom

According to Vanessa Pittard, Chief Executive of MEI and keynote at the CPD, there are more job opportunities for data scientists than any other profession. Vanessa kicked off the day by helping us to think about the number of Google searches conducted, YouTube videos watched, and online retail transactions conducted worldwide every minute (answers at the end). Clue: It’s a lot of data! She then shared the various ways the world has seen the impact of big data across disciplines and industries, including Health Sciences, Epidemiology, Geography, Psychology, and even History.

Dr. Rosalind Mist of the Royal Society introduced data science as being at the “interface between school curriculum subjects of maths, computing and most other subjects” and she outlined the challenge (and the tough questions) for how this would look in school curricula. Indeed, she argued, data is increasingly at the heart of our daily lives, from tagging pictures, to translating text, to managing aspects of our lives through Siri and Alexa.

Vanessa finished our introduction to Big Data by outlining skills that could be taught at different stages of learning and reminded us that educators have to realise this opportunity – to engage and inspire students with data – real data. This rise of hybrid skillsets is calling for ‘renaissance’ individuals and our schools should encourage this, even as universities and the workplace are crying out for data science-related skills.

From the Alan Turing Institute, Adrian Gascon cautioned us on the importance of teaching students about data privacy and used a coin experiment to show how mathematics can be utilised to maintain privacy while providing information.

Then, we broke into two groups and in my group, I had the pleasure of hearing Sue Finnigan, the eLearning Consultant and Online Safety Lead from Sheffield City Council. She shared the numerous resources and methods of engaging students in authentic and openly available data. She explained that the 4 V’s of Big Data are: Volume, Variety, Velocity, and Veracity and there are different levels of big data: closed, shared, and open. Open data is data that anyone can use, access and share. Engaging students in open data can result in useful projects such as one student created for people to check if the second-hand bike they are buying is actually stolen.

Steve Brace from the Royal Geographic Society addressed the issue of data being handled poorly and the importance of it real data access for students. He encouraged us to join ArcGIS at Schools. Both Steve and Sue agreed that it is important that educators understand and educate students on the differences in the data available. And even more, it is crucial that we start engaging with the wide range of open data available locally and globally, from the UK Census 2011, Met police crime data, UK Government Data to Gapminder, Open Data Institute, and NASA.

Jennifer Panting from the Royal Society policy team shared the challenge of brain drain and the need to increase the pipeline of students who are versed in data science. Finally, Louisiane Ferlier from the Society’s Centre for History of Science took us on a visual survey of the long history of visualization of information and data in the world of science through images, charts, diagrams, and infographics.

What was personally interesting was how many people are curious about this intersection of fields as presented in the burgeoning area of data science.

The educators at my roundtable came from many levels and areas of interest in education; half of the enjoyment of the day was interacting with each other during breaks and lunch to share how we could see this working in our own work with children.

I work with teachers in various disciplines at our school, from maths and sciences to the humanities and languages. This CPD day has given me much to contemplate and many resources for them, as well as in my own class, Technology and Culture. Beyond that, I shall recommend a new course to develop student skills in harnessing the power of open data sets. It is exciting to think that the large amounts of data we are creating and storing globally (even by the minute!) could tell us more about humanity, through trends and patterns, on a massive scale. How could we not want our students to engage in that?

(Answers: 3.87 million, 4.3 million, 73,249)