Understanding Data, One “Byte” at a Time

BIOS-based colleagues and co-leads on the new DataBytes digital resource launched in late 2020 for educators and students include (from left) Leocadio Blanco-Bercial, Kaitlin Noyes, and Amy Maas. The name DataBytes speaks to the need to supply educators and students with “bite-sized, easy-to-digest versions of larger, more complex data sets,” said Maas, a zooplankton ecologist.

Every time science researchers conduct an experiment at sea or make measurements in a lab, they gather tens of thousands of data points. Collectively, these tell a story of the places, organisms, and communities scientists study and the research questions they are addressing.

For high school and college students learning to study and analyze actual scientific data, the sheer size of the data sets can be overwhelming. Enter DataBytes, a new digital resource launched by BIOS in late 2020 that aims to make ocean and atmospheric data more accessible and streamlined for educators and their students.

The name DataBytes speaks to the need to supply educators and students with “bite-sized, easy-to-digest versions of larger, more complex data sets,” said BIOS zooplankton ecologist Amy Maas, a research collaborator with the initiative. Her DataBytes contribution, developed with the project’s co-leads Leocadio Blanco-Bercial, Kaitlin Noyes, and Leslie Smith, is the first featured on the website and focuses on the daily migration of zooplankton as they move vertically through the water column.

The zooplankton vertical migration data set on the DataBytes website contains illustrations like this to explain how oceanographic data are collected. The visualization includes information on the tools utilized to collect the data; the time of day that instruments were deployed; and the parameter measured by each piece of equipment, which corresponds directly to the data curated for download. Illustration credit: Colleen Baird

DataBytes are designed to showcase oceanographic and atmospheric concepts with real-world data sets in ways that make them easier to interpret and understand for educational audiences. Supporting media describe how these data were collected so that educators and students can make a direct connection to the source of the data, from at-sea research expeditions to laboratory studies.

Access to real-world, quality-controlled data allows students to move away from working with modular, or small, data sets collected through classroom activities, to manipulating larger datasets that have been collected by BIOS researchers. By utilizing curated data sets, educators can support their students with authentic data that highlights key oceanographic and atmospheric concepts and patterns, said Noyes, BIOS’s educational lead on the initiative.

“Many partnering educators were already looking for data to utilize as components of their BIOS experience, so I knew that the need was there, we just required the funding to build the infrastructure that would allow us to easily disseminate the data,” Noyes said. The project received initial support in 2019 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and will work in partnership with the Biological and Chemical Oceanography Data Management Office, the marine science data repository of NSF.

The goal of this web-based resource is to enable students to confidently learn how to use and apply data sets. “Students entering and working in science, technology, engineering and math fields are increasingly asked to sort, process, and interpret data,” said Smith, an oceanographer and science communications consultant on the project whose expertise includes making large data sets accessible to entry-level learners. “We’re training the twenty-first century workforce.”

Data sets in the initiative are used to augment concepts in current science courses to promote conversations in the classroom, Smith said. Utilizing research multimedia is a useful way to introduce how these data were collected. Graphic representations of data can then be shared to illustrate larger oceanographic and atmospheric concepts and trends, such as hypoxia (low or depleted oxygen in a water body) and the biological carbon pump (how the ocean captures carbon from the atmosphere). Data sets can also be downloaded for students to manipulate, create their own graphs, reproduce illustrations, and probe the data to answer different questions rooted in fundamental oceanographic concepts.

This summer, the team expects to launch a second data set, using data collected from the ocean’s oxygen minimum zones in Canada’s Saanich Inlet, based on the research of BIOS chemical oceanographer Damian Grundle.

In the long term, Noyes anticipates that the project will develop 10 to 15 common oceanographic and atmospheric themes with corresponding data sets and resources collected by BIOS’s research teams. Each will be tested with educators in BIOS’s Educator Workshops and at an NSF-funded workshop, High Dive into Ocean Data, to be hosted at BIOS in June 2022. The BIOS team will continue to build additional modules and partnerships with educators through workshops, conferences, and social medial platforms.