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Tech Class

Big Data, Big Changes

A high school teacher starts a computer science competition to tap students' natural data-parsing capabilities.

A photo of four students at a podium in an auditorium
Gr. 12 students present their research findings on the effects of water filtration on emotions.

THE CHALLENGE: Give students the confidence to become strong data scientists.

THE SOLUTION: Have them compete in a two-semester "big data" challenge.

LESSONS LEARNED: Sacha Noukhovitch, OCT, wanted to help his Grade 11 and 12 computer science students at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto form a stronger link between the way he believes they naturally want to learn and the activities they undertake at school.

Today's students view the world differently than previous generations, he says. "They're learning through data and information. They trust their virtual experience sometimes more than their physical experience."

So Noukhovitch created the National High School Big Data Challenge, a two-semester competition in which students would dive into data from government and non-profit sources to research real-world issues and solutions.

Participants work in teams of four, tackling topics according to whatever theme the competition has set for the year. The environment has been the main thrust since the Canadian Commission for UNESCO started sponsoring the program in 2017.

The teams get access to publicly available scientific data starting as early as September. For the next four months they learn how to use the computer programs needed to conduct the hefty research and synthesize their findings into a compelling report. Students are paired with experts in the tools and scientific areas they're researching.

Their reports are published in the STEM Fellowship Journal (journal.stemfellowship.org). STEM Fellowship is the organization that runs the competition; it's a non-profit that supports studies in science, technology, engineering and math. Noukhovitch is one of its founders.)

Come February the teams are invited to a conference in-person or online to present their findings to judges from academia, science communication and policy leadership.

OBSERVATIONS: Students tackle eye-opening topics. Last year's reports included one on the link between a community's water quality and people's emotions, and another on solutions to ocean acidification. But even more impressive is the students' personal development. Teams often become intensely attached to the topics they researched. And they discover they can think deeply about real-world problems and develop practical responses.

"The biggest outcome of the program is a digital citizenship position that students develop through the challenge, and a computational thinking and evidence-based approach to real-world problems," Noukhovitch says.

Noukhovitch has seen students with little computer science experience take the top prize. That's because the program is primarily about tapping their natural curiosity and directing it with data. "It is not a coding competition. It is a challenge to make sense out of big data, generate independent ideas and back them up with what this data-native generation is good at: computational thinking."

The College's professional advisory Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media — Updated (oct-oeeo.ca/ecomm) guides members' professional judgment in the use of technology.

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