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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Data science class offers L.A. Unified students a new handle on math

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Ryan Menezes, statistician and reporter with the Data Desk reports, "During first period at Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, Monica Casillas asked her students to line up in order by height so she could organize a human representation of a "box-and-whisker" plot."

Thomas Navas, 16, a student in the Introduction to Data Science class at Francis Polytechnic High, uses data from the Centers for Disease Control to test his theory that there is a relationship between hours of sleep per night and a person's height. 
Photo: Los Angeles Times

As they filed into place — most boys went to one end, most girls to the other — Casillas drew the data visualization on butcher paper. The rectangle in the center showed the typical heights of the class, with straight lines called "whiskers" extended from the box to show how far away the tallest and shortest students were from the middle.

Thomas Navas, a 5-foot-2 junior, found himself at the end of a whisker, the shortest student in his Introduction to Data Science class.

Standing at the end, Navas wondered what affected his height. Could his lack of sleep — about six hours a night — keep him from growing?

Asking questions of data is the aim of the class, which is being offered at 10 Los Angeles Unified School District high schools this year. The class gives students an alternative to traditional math; its curriculum is grounded in hands-on data collection, plus lessons in computer programming so students can get answers from data, a trade highly valued in many industries.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $12.5-million grant in 2010 to a partnership including L.A. Unified and the departments of computer science and education at UCLA, in an effort to teach computational thinking in urban schools.

Suyen Moncada-Machado, an instructional specialist with the district, saw a need to use some of the funds for a class devoted specifically to data science. She proposed the course, hoping to accomplish the goals of the grant while also satisfying the district's recently adopted Common Core guidelines. 
The new learning standards in math emphasize statistical literacy, specifically probability and modeling — the practice of using data to make informed decisions.

"The current statistics classes were made in the 1970s; we have these powerful computers that do so much more now," said Moncada-Machado, who previously taught math in L.A. Unified high schools. "If you look at a stats textbook from the 70s and a stats textbook now, there's not much of a change. We needed something that would bring it into the 21st century."

Source: Los Angeles Times