Helping youth succeed in science – Part 5: Analyzing and interpreting data

You can engage youth in data analysis and interpretation through conversations designed to help youth see patterns and connect their data so they gain insight into their world.

Youth collect data at the 2015 4-H Forestry Fun Camp.

Youth collect data at the 2015 4-H Forestry Fun Camp.

In 2011, the National Research Council released a report, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education.” Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H are working to increase science literacy through the inclusion of the Scientific and Engineering Practices described in the framework – and you can too!

The Scientific and Engineering Practices outlines eight simple but powerful practices about how to engage youth in science and engineering to increase STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) literacy. The Practices are:

  1. Asking questions (science) and defining problems (engineering).
  2. Developing and using models.
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations.
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data.
  5. Constructing explanations and designing solutions.
  6. Using mathematics and computational thinking.
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence.
  8. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.

Data? What data? Oh, that data! Feeling confused? You are not alone. Often, youth engage in the exploration of questions, carrying out investigations and collecting data – lots of data – but are confused with what to do with their data. Data analysis involves using data to help explain the world around us. Raw data, the numbers and observations, resulting directly from the investigations (for example, all the measurements of tree height and diameter) have to be “crunched” as we say. This often involves some simple math, like calculating averages, charts and graphs, etc., to identify significant features and patterns, as well as potential sources of error and the degree of certainty. In engineering, data analysis includes a comparison of multiple solutions to see which best fits the design constraints. As an adult working with youth, one of the most important things you can do is to help youth navigate the wonderful world of data analysis and interpretation.

Youth in Ogemaw County attended an MSU Extension’s 4-H Forestry Fun Camp this summer where they needed to answer the question: is the timber being produced by a specific area of land the maximum it can produce and remain healthy? To answer their question, youth, with the aid of a forester, collected data on the tree species, diameter at 4-feet from the ground, and usable height of a representative sample of the trees in the area. The data was analyzed with youth calculating the board footage of timber from each tree. Then, using that data, they calculated the average board foot timber production per area. Youth interpreted their data through a discussion with the forester to determine their data indicated the landowner was not getting the maximum amount of timber production the land could produce and remain healthy. Youth went further under the guidance of the forester and discussed ways to increase timber production, resulting in a mini-forest management plan.

You can engage youth in data analysis and interpretation through conversations designed to help youth see patterns and connect their data so they gain insight into their world. Carly Fiorina, former executive, president, and chair of Hewlett-Packard Company, stated, “The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight.” Success in science leads to a deeper understanding of the world around us.

This is Part 5 of a series of nine articles that will explore a variety of ways you can help youth engage in the Scientific and Engineering Practices. Although the series will address individual practices, it is important to remember that as a whole they increase STEM literacy and like science itself, the individual practices do not function in a vacuum, but are intertwined with STEM exploration. To learn more about the Scientific and Engineering Practices, you can download a free copy of “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” or Appendix F of the Next Generation Science Standards.

To learn more about helping youth succeed in science, read the other articles in this series listed below and explore the MSU Extension Science and Technology website. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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