Leveraging Local Partnerships to Teach the Fundamentals of Data

In the digital age, data is omnipresent in our daily lives – everything we do, everything we interact with, creates some form of data. Similarly, being able to understand and work with data has never been more critical in the professional world, both in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. However, the ability to access data and use it to make decisions is not uniform, and community members and nonprofit organizations are usually at a disadvantage compared to larger corporations. To help bridge this gap, Data Driven Detroit (D3) developed Data University, a cohort-based program that trains nonprofits in the fundamentals of data. Through six workshops, participants learn how to better integrate data and storytelling in their day-to-day work.

The nonprofit sector, however, isn’t the only place where we’ve seen an interest in strengthening the awareness and use of data. People and organizations in Detroit, ranging from teachers to university faculty to funders, have expressed a desire to build a citywide culture of increased data use and familiarity. This year, with the support of The Skillman Foundation, D3 started to respond to that interest by exploring whether Data University could also be leveraged to increase awareness of the importance of data among Detroit’s high school-aged youth.

On May 28, 2019, D3 presented a modified version of Data University to students attending a Microsoft TEALS(Technology Education and Literacy in Schools)-sponsored computer science fair at Wayne State University. The workshop covered basic data concepts and vocabulary, introduced students to D3, examined why data is important, and engaged students in an activity exploring how a career they may be interested in uses data. Ultimately, our goal in delivering this workshop was twofold. On one hand, we wanted to test how well modules of our Data University trainings, which are currently targeted toward nonprofits, can be adapted to serve different audiences; we felt high school students would be an ideal audience given their diverse career interests. Secondly, and more importantly, we sought to introduce students to data, to help them understand how it relates to their daily lives, and to understand how it connects with – and can be used in – their future careers. Our hope was that students would leave the workshop feeling excited about the use of data in their community, and that they would then explore a career in a rapidly growing field – one which they may not have otherwise considered.

The first part of the presentation – covering data basics and terminology – provided baseline vocabulary and context to the students.  The presenters explained what makes data useful, particularly to a high school student. This section focused on three main points: how knowledge of data can put one “ahead of the pack” in future careers; how personally collected data can help individuals make informed decisions in their lives; and how data can be applied to advance the causes one cares about. Students then completed a review exercise in which they used the presented data concepts to answer questions about a dataset specific to the career field they were most interested in. The students were given a worksheet and a choice of five datasets from different career fields. Once they selected a dataset, they worked together to complete the worksheet, using what they learned from the first section of the presentation. The collaborative nature of these exercises allowed the students to look at each dataset from different angles, providing them with more examples of how data could be used to help them work more effectively in their chosen field.

Throughout the presentation and activity, the students were engaged and focused on learning data skills relevant to their fields of interest. At the end of the activity, they were asked if they would like to continue to work with data in the future, to which all participants indicated that they would. The workshop successfully helped youth understand the importance of data in their potential career field and in their daily life. Additionally, the students were excited about the examples of community-focused work that D3 does in Detroit, such as Motor City Mapping, demonstrating that these young people were able to connect how using data can help them better serve their communities.

Our greatest hope following this workshop series is that the students will continue to explore and practice using data as they progress through their academic careers and that they will eventually use data to strengthen their communities and their hometown of Detroit