194 Teaching Big Data Workforce Skills Through Tropical Cyclone Investigations

Monday, 11 January 2016
Michelle Hall, Science Education Solutions, Los Alamos, NM; and M. Mayhew, C. S. Walker, and K. Menke

In 2003 we launched an innovative set of introductory college curriculum modules (The SAGUARO Project – http://scieds.com/saguaro.html) that opened the door for novice users of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), both students and faculty, to explore Earth System science. The modules have been used in over 130 universities and colleges and in some high schools. Ten years later, we are innovating once more to address lingering obstacles to learning about Earth systems using real data and solving authentic problems with GIS tools. In our investigation we seek to better understand how students learn with the powerful analytical and visualization tools of a GIS and how these learning experiences influence their interest in, awareness of, and persistence towards Earth systems science and Big Data careers.

Our project focuses on updating our introductory undergraduate-level GIS-based curriculum on tropical cyclones. Our instructional model is built on a foundation of success with a "Teach With GIS" —as opposed to Teach About GIS—approach. The virtue of teaching with GIS is that it is easier and more engaging for students to learn GIS-based data analysis skills while investigating a scientific problem with real data than mastering GIS theory and skills and then tackling a scientific investigation.

A key issue in developing workforce skills is access to the technology of the workplace. The leading commercial GIS software (ESRI's ArcGIS) is expensive, works only on Windows, and is challenging for a novice to use. However, there is a free open source application, QGIS, which works across Windows, Mac and Linux OS platforms; the functionality of the two applications is comparable. Extensions and plug-ins simplify the interface for novices. We are creating datasets and projects that are compatible with both, thereby greatly increasing access to GIS tools and instruction in undergraduate geoscience courses, especially for disadvantaged students and institutions.

We are designing the curriculum around opening students' eyes to opportunities in the 21st century workforce for those with GIS and related analytical skills to work with Big Data. We will embed a number of elements aimed at increasing career awareness in our curriculum. One such element in our plan is the production of a set of short videos, much like those on YouTube, that can teach you how to change a tire, perform a dance step, or solve a differential equation. Ours will feature young geoscientists in interesting careers using Big Data. They will teach students new analysis skills and challenge them to think critically about issues of data manipulation, analysis, and visualization. We encourage young scientists working with GIS tools in their career to contact us, if they are interested in being featured in a short video about their career and how they use GIS.

The curriculum has rich multimedia linked to the map-based data analysis: photos, movies, Google Earth views, animations, websites, news articles, spreadsheets, tables, and graphs.

In Unit 1, students manipulate global data on cyclone origin points and tracks and sea surface temperature variations by season while being introduced to the rich physics of cyclone formation. They will explore the Big Picture: when, where, and why do cyclones form and travel? In Unit 2, students will learn about modern means of observing cyclones. They will analyze the historical records of Atlantic hurricanes in relation to prevailing winds. They will learn to categorize hurricanes and to relate storm intensity to potential for destruction.

In Unit 3, students will use the GIS tools to determine the number of landfalls of major hurricanes for U.S. coastal states and from that construct a simple hazard map. Then, using data on life and property loss along with demographic data, they will construct a risk map.

In Unit 4, students will use the GIS measurement tools to track Typhoon Haiyan using multiple types of satellite imagery, from its origin to its devastating swath through the Philippines via analysis of data layers for demography, wind speed, rainfall, and flooding.

In Unit 5, students will investigate Hurricane Sandy, building on rich GIS data sets developed in Sandy's aftermath. They will investigate infrastructure damage and loss of life in relation to demography and extent of flooding. They will investigate the conditions that made Sandy so destructive and the implications of sea level rise for the impact of future Sandy-like storms.

Beyond the investigations of tropical cyclones per se, our goal is a new model for engaging introductory level students in learning about Earth system science using a Geographic Information System and large, complex datasets ("Big Data"). We will explore whether our model pulls students in to the delights of discovery via exploration of multiple real-world data sets. We will explore whether integrating career information into our model fosters interest, engagement, self-confidence, and persistence towards geosciences and Big Data careers.

We invite instructors interested in field testing our materials to contact us.

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