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The Year in Data (Education): IES Takes Steps to Catalyze a New Field

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | December 20, 2021

I invited Zarek Drozda, who is currently serving as an IES fellow, to share some of the exciting work IES and the Department of Education are supporting to accelerate the use and understanding of data science. IES regularly employs fellows with subject matter expertise or specialized skillsets to help the agency spearhead work in new areas. In Spring 2021, Zarek joined IES from the University of Chicago to facilitate research, conduct technical assistance, and help IES learn more about the new field of data science and data literacy education. Below are his observations.

In 2000, researchers first estimated the size of modern "big data"—how much data humanity has generated—at 1.5 billion gigabytes of print, film, optical, and magnetically-stored content—per year. Today, the amount of data in the datasphere has been estimated to surpass 60 trillion gigabytes (or 60 zetabytes), and will reach 175 trillion gigabytes by 2025.

The amount of information humans must now deal with in our daily lives is overwhelming. In the background, data collected by major internet platforms feed algorithms that determine search results, friend suggestions, and which information is promoted and which is not. In the foreground, interpretations of and arguments with data appear daily and shape public policy. The accuracy of data, and our ability to interpret it, can affect everything from health decisions to financial well-being. The processing of "big data" serves as the foundation for frontier technologies like artificial intelligence, machine-learning, nanobots, and blockchain. And the protection of our own personal data will be critical for everyone's cyber-safety. We all will need the tools to navigate this new landscape, regardless of career choice or life occupation.

To equip our nation's students for this future, IES and ED have been taking steps in 2021 to catalyze the nascent field of data literacy and data science education:

Growing the Evidence Base: IES is releasing an implementation guide for building and using evidence in data science education. A first of its kind, the guide will have a checklist for designing pilot studies, engaging stakeholders, and sharing results, as well as ways to support rapidly testing programs to increase the evidence base. The guide should be available in early 2022.

Building Awareness: Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten headlined a Department of Education STEM Webinar on Data Literacy on October 15, 2021, along with Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) President Trena Wilkerson, and three leaders from data science teacher training programs. The webinar was organized in collaboration with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). You can view the recording and webinar slides anytime.

Convening Experts for Next Steps: NCER held a Technical Working Group in late October to identify gaps in the field of data science education and needed resources to support building an evidence base. A diverse group of experts from education research, state and local education agencies, industry, K–12 and higher education outlined barriers and provided recommendations for IES. The summary report will be available in the coming months and will inform additional steps to catalyze research on improving students' data literacy and data science skills.

Resources for Innovation: To achieve scale and sustainability, the field of data science education needs interventions to further capacity in teacher professional development, build classroom assessment strategies, and create accessible data software for special education students, to name a few. Beyond the wide flexibility in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, several recurring grant competitions accept proposals for projects to support critical work in expanding access to data literacy and data science education. Opportunities at IES include the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program (which is now accepting proposals through February 1), the IES Education Research Grants Program, and the IES Special Education Research Grants Program. ED's OESE also offers grant programs that could include data science work, including the early-phase Education Innovation Research program, the Teacher Quality Partnerships program, and the Supporting Effective Educator Development Grant.

The everyday impact of "big data" is here to stay, both for our work at IES and for learners. We are already behind in preparing the next generation to be data literate—we must quickly grow the evidence base so that all our students can benefit. IES will be working to make additional opportunities available and will continue to innovate with other partners at ED and across government to equip our students for this decade and beyond.

Contact Zarek with additional ideas or suggestions at