College of Education; Research

Researcher to measure middle schoolers’ data science knowledge in context of social issues


Golnaz Arastoopour Irgens
Golnaz Arastoopour Irgens, assistant professor in Clemson’s education and human development department.

A Clemson University faculty member will use an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to examine middle school students’ data science knowledge and practices through the lens of social issues and gauge students’ sense of empowerment to positively change communities through data science.

Golnaz Arastoopour Irgens, assistant professor of learning sciences in the Clemson University College of Education, said it is a common misconception that data is neutral or free from the influence of social issues or that data has no effect on social issues. She said it is often the case that technology informed by data science, such as search engines or facial recognition software, has been shown to either reinforce discrimination or mischaracterize minority groups.

Because humans design these forms of technology and many more make decisions based on them, a critical eye on how they are developed and how they are utilized becomes necessary. Arastoopour Irgens said it follows that the way we educate students to employ data science and utilize it falls short when social, ethical and political issues are not integrated into that education.

“Data analytics education is not something new, but data analytics practices have changed dramatically and the decisions that are made based on these data are now affecting people at much larger scales than ever before,” Arastoopour Irgens said. “This can be a problem when the population of computer scientists is mainly white and male; the viewpoints of other, non-dominant populations aren’t represented, so it’s important for our youth to recognize and engage with the changes in this area.”

Arastoopour Irgens and a team of graduate education students will use a new methodology, quantitative ethnography, which uses statistical tools to make sense of what learners are saying and doing as they engage with data science practices. This methodology will allow her to develop visual, dynamic models of how learners are connecting data science knowledge and practices to social, ethical and political issues in ways that are meaningful to them.

In order to measure the degree to which students feel empowered to enact change through data science, Arastoopour Irgens will combine and adapt existing surveys that measure political perceptions, civic engagement and agency with those that measure computing confidence, enjoyment, perceived usefulness, motivation to succeed and identity/belongingness. The research team will then use statistical models to note any changes in empowerment or attitudes toward computing after participation in an after-school program, which is a central aspect of the research.

This program will take place at five different sites across Greenville County. Arastoopour Irgens will co-design the after-school program with after-school staff, families, youth and community members to ensure it is aligned with their communities’ interests and values.

“Although formal schooling is a place where critical data education should be taught, this project will focus on broader community engagement and design without the constraints of schooling,” Arastoopour Irgens said. “We have already started a partnership with the after-school center and have held meetings with staff and conducted short activities and interviews with youth. We are confident that this collaboration will result in some powerful learning experiences and impacts on youth and their communities.”

Arastoopour Irgens said that few programs currently engage learners at an early age in data science education in which culturally relevant social, ethical and political issues are the focus. The project aims to address this gap for an audience primarily comprised of children of color or those living in poverty—populations who are underserved and underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Arastoopour Irgens said the project serves underrepresented youth by providing culturally relevant experiences that may ultimately motivate them to pursue STEM majors and careers. Youth involved who may not be part of an underrepresented population will also be positively impacted as they are made more aware of harmful traditions of technology development and consumption that marginalize others.

“We plan to post all of our materials on my research lab website and make them openly available and easily adaptable for other educators to use,” Arastoopour Irgens said. “My hope is to continue this work after this initial trial and that other educators can improve upon what we’ve done and adapt it to better fit the needs of their learner populations.”

The research is funded by NSF’s Building Capacity in STEM Education Research, which supports projects that build individuals’ capacity to carry out high-quality STEM education research that will enhance the nation’s STEM education enterprise and broaden the pool of researchers that can conduct fundamental research in STEM learning and learning environments and broaden participation in STEM fields and enhance STEM workforce development.

To visit Arastoopour Irgens’ website, the IDEA Lab at Clemson University, click here.


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