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WSU hosts Data Literacy Playshops program

Seven-year-old George, second from left, with members of his family and Data Literacy Playshop facilitator and psychology graduate student Kirsie Lundholm, right. George wants to design computer games someday.

Seven-year-old George wants to design computer games. Five-year-old Erik hopes to become a policeman. Fourteen-year-old Jaime finds archaeology and history fascinating. 

These youngsters and dozens of their peers recently took an important step toward achieving their dreams by participating in the Data Literacy Playshops program hosted by Washington State University data scholars. The youth and family-oriented playshop events introduce K–8 students to ways of recognizing, synthesizing, and utilizing data as a “fourth dimension of literacy.”

“As data culture becomes the norm, data literacy needs to be part of basic education from an early age,” said Nairanjana “Jan” Dasgupta, WSU Boeing distinguished professor of science/math education who conceived and created the data playshops. “Increasing children’s level of comfort and understanding about using data helps them recognize the many ways they can and already do make data-based decisions in their daily lives.”

Engaging youth and their families in age-appropriate, data-immersive activities can start conversations, create awareness, and pique positive interest in data — before they might be affected by negative attitudes toward math, Dasgupta said.

The lighthearted and fun hands-on activities focus on storytelling, visualization, and using the word “data” frequently. Participants and their families learn ways to collect and evaluate data and how data can be both used and misused.

Activities range from estimating the number of M&Ms in a jar — with the closest guesser winning the candy — to using data-based reasoning to predict the outcomes of toy car races, with the emphasis on number sense, not math skills.

“Without realizing it, the children are working with and engaging in data analysis, which opens the door for new experiences and insights that could change the trajectory of their future learning,” Dasgupta said.

The future is now

Whatever careers today’s youngsters pursue, they will need increased data skills to succeed in tomorrow’s world — and the world will need their lived-experiences, too, said Dasgupta, who directs WSU’s data analytics degree program.

Beyond increasing literacy and critical-thinking skills, “another goal of the playshops is to increase diversity and representation in the fields of data analytics and data science,” she said. “In our current world of automation, data literacy is important for such things as ensuring representation in policy making and countering algorithmic bias.” 

Dasgupta worked with civic organizations in underrepresented data science communities in Cashmere, Washington, and the Tri‑Cities to host the first three Data Literacy Playshops in 2022. She has since received a $209,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Employment Security to expand the project statewide.

With additional funding from her Boeing professorship, a $10,000 grant from Amazon, and a $3,000 grant from technology investment firm Silver Lake, at least three data playshops will be hosted each year in four Washington locations, including Brewster, Entiat, and Everett.

The playshops expose youngsters to data, and data concepts, in a happy, positive, and comfortable atmosphere with activities and discussions that include family members. Data playshop facilitators — WSU College of Arts and Sciences students in data analytics, statistics, psychology, and comparative languages — add diverse perspectives to the discussions. 

Interacting with WSU students also helps the youngsters imagine themselves going to college, Dasgupta said. One happy playshop participant, 10-year-old Alex from Tri‑Cities, already has the WSU Class of 2032 in his sights.

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