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Desert Data Jam: Local high school students apply creativity to data analysis

What could be better than bar graphs and pie charts for representing scientific data?

Female high school student stands with project at Desert Data Jam poster session
Paula Hoffmann Landau, a Mayfield High School senior, poses with her first-place project at the first ever Desert Data Jam poster session. The event, which was included in the recent international Wildland Shrub Symposium, featured the top entries in a contest that had high school science students analyzing data sets related to ecological trends in the Jornada Basin and devising creative ways to display the data and conclusions derived from it. Landau's project, which included a children's story, compared population fluctuations of cottontail rabbit and pocket mouse populations. The Desert Data Jam initiative involved the Asombro Institute for Science Education, the USDA Jornada Experimental Range, and a number of NMSU faculty. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

Stephanie Bestelmeyer and her colleagues at the Asombro Institute for Science Education decided high school science students ought to have what it takes to answer that question.

They created the first ever Desert Data Jam, a scientific poster competition for local high school science students, and presented the idea to area science teachers. Several teachers agreed that developing a data-driven poster project this spring would help their students better understand the value of scientific data and get them ready for the rigors of college-level science courses.

The Jornada Experimental Range, a USDA research unit based at New Mexico State University and affiliated with the institute, sponsored the competition.

Students from participating high school classes were given online access via www.ecotrends.info to more than 130 data sets about Chihuahuan Desert ecology compiled during the past 30 years. The data represent the observations of scientists from NMSU, other universities and the USDA Agricultural Research Service collaborating in the Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research project.

Desert Data Jam participants were to choose data sets on topics that interested them and work with the data to draw conclusions about ecological or other changes documented by Jornada researchers. Then they needed to apply the analytical skills developed through their math and science classes, tap into their creative sides, and come up with unique ways of portraying the data and the conclusions.

The promise of cash awards for the top projects - $500 for first place, $300 for second place, $200 for third place and $150 for fourth place - added an additional level of motivation.

"We had 45 projects submitted," said Bestelmeyer, "and 25 judges, mostly from NMSU, worked very hard to choose the top projects."

Four required elements of the project, all of which were factored into the judges' evaluations, were: an overview of the data set or sets, a creative characterization of the data and main conclusions, a plan for disseminating the information to nonscientist audiences, and a reflective section on the students' process of developing the product.

The 14 top-ranked poster presentations were on display in late May at "Humans in Changing Landscapes," the 17th Wildland Shrub Symposium, held at the Las Cruces Convention Center. Conference presenters, including scientists from most Western states and several foreign countries, were encouraged to attend the Desert Data Jam awards ceremony May 23.

"Students were amazingly creative with their projects," Bestelmeyer said. "The finalists included a rap, a children's story, several interesting models, and 'infographics' displaying data in entirely new ways."

The first-place project, by Paula Hoffmann Landau, was titled "Relevance of Cottontail Rabbit Population to the Pocket Mouse Population in the Jornada." The project included a children's story and activity book.

Hoffmann Landau admits that her desire to produce a children's book influenced her choice of data sets.

"Both the cottontail rabbit and the pocket mouse are rather cute and easy to pass off in a children's story," she said. "It was also extremely convenient because the data for the two animals was collected on the same years."

The story's main character is a desert cottontail rabbit with a big problem. "In order to resolve said problem, the cottontail and her friend must learn to interpret data correctly to save the day," Hoffmann Landau said.

She plans to give her book to the Asombro Institute for them to share with the thousands of students they work with.

Hoffmann Landau hopes to be an elementary school teacher or a counselor, and plans to save most of her prize money for college textbooks.

The second place project was "Employment Rate Through the Years" by Sarah Devore and Ja'Nea Williams. Third place was "Plant Juice is a Rabbit's Favorite Drink" by Ashley Crouch and Jacquelynn Flores, and fourth place was "Merriam's Kangaroo Rats Population Fluctuation" by Sophia Bailey, Cameron Marlin and Madalyn Sprague.

All of the top projects came from Mayfield High School; the top four winners were produced by students in science classes taught by Beth Rewalt.

"Teachers and students really took our idea and ran with it," Bestelmeyer said. "We now know this idea has real promise, and we'll expand the Desert Data Jam competition to additional schools next year. We've also been in contact with science educators in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota and Puerto Rico who are interested in replicating the project."