Do ecological research as a family project, virtually, via Cary Institute’s 2020 Hudson Data Jam

Do ecological research as a family project, virtually, via Cary Institute’s 2020 Hudson Data Jam

In a normal year at this season, with the weather warming up, we at Almanac Weekly would be joining the chorus of voices urging families to get out and about as participants in “citizen science” projects: bird counts, stream testing, helping amphibians cross busy roads, recording the dates when this or that plant came into bloom. There’s no substitute for the thrill of doing primary research, even on a small local level. And it’s a great hands-on introduction for kids to learn the importance of gathering hard data. They’ll need that appreciation later on, as they pursue higher education and are assigned independent research projects. It’ll also make them wiser, better citizens: less easy to manipulate via poorly sourced or biased information.

Since we can’t be doing so much of that real-world accumulation of new data right now, it’s the perfect time to turn our attention to the analysis side of research. A growing pile of painstakingly gathered statistics means nothing if someone isn’t sifting through them, spotting patterns, interpreting what they signify and making recommendations for best practices based on those hard facts. For some of us (including some in the journalism trade), this is where doing research truly becomes fun mental stimulation. Youngsters, as they advance in their schooling, also need to learn how to manage this phase.

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As a well from which to draw information, the Internet, some wag once said, is a mile wide and an inch deep. Ranging freely, you can find out a lot of facts you never knew you needed to know; but you can also easily come to believe a lot of things that aren’t strictly true. If you want to draw reliable conclusions from your research, it’s a useful discipline to identify a particular reliable dataset that you want to explore. With kids stuck at home for the remainder of the school year and parents looking for ideas to optimize what they get out of distance learning, why not throw yourselves into a family research project?

The ideal opportunity presents itself right now, in the form of the Cary Institute’s seventh annual Hudson Data Jam competition. The Millbrook-based Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is sitting on a veritable dragon’s hoard of information about the natural world, gathered in our region by working scientists since the 1980s. Every now and then we’ll read or hear a news bulletin about some discovery they’ve made, some action they’re advocating – in recent years, often relating to the scourge of Lyme disease and how best to lessen its impacts. But there’s lots more to be learned from these data. Who knows? It might be a young student who comes up with the next great spark of insight, given access to this wealth of information.

There are three levels of competition in the Data Jam: middle school, high school and – this year for the first time – family, which can include children as young as kindergarten age. With guidance from Cary Institute educators, participants select an ecology dataset that they want to analyze and are given access to it. But this is no dull, dry science fair project: By the time you’re done, you’ll be called upon to turn STEM to STEAM by creating a visual or performing arts product that communicates the lesson you’ve learned from these data. Sing a song, make a video, paint a picture, design a computer game, write a children’s book – your imagination is the limit.

Each Data Jam submission is judged by a panel consisting of a scientist, an artist and an educator. Cash prizes are awarded to the top middle and high school projects. A special prize will be awarded to the top Family Data Jam project submission.

The 2020 Hudson Data Jam competition will be 100 percent virtual. Cary Institute educators will be offering informational webinars and instructional videos to help parents, students and educators learn how to work with data and create a project that clearly communicates the data trends you discover. Participants must register by May 13 and submit their project results online by May 27. A Virtual Data Jam Expo and Awards Ceremony will be held via Zoom from 5 to 7 p.m. on June 19. Visit the website at www.caryinstitute.org/eco-inquiry/datajam to sign up for webinars and to learn more. Two Facebook pages have also been created for Data Jammers to get updates, at www.facebook.com/hudsondatajam, and to connect and share strategies, at www.facebook.com/groups/683710482429325.