Spotlight: Statistics program bringing data science to high schools

 In today’s world, data is everywhere. The words big data and machine learning are tossed around with ease, but the basics of these computational skills aren’t a requirement in grade-level school. Not only that, but a major problem in grade-level school is losing students in the math system. To solve this problem, Rob Gould,  professor of statistics at UCLA, created a solution to both: Mobilize. The mission behind Mobilize is to arm students with computational and analytical skills in a new way: through data science.

 Many students begin to lose track of algebra when letters are introduced into

Rob Gould

Rob Gould, UCLA

equations and it becomes less about solving problems and more about proving equations. The truth is, a vast majority of those students will never need to take a derivative in their career, but this is not a reason to leave them behind in math and curtail their cognitive development for computational problems. This gap was noticed by Rob Gould, the Principal Investigator for Mobilize, as Gould and colleagues began to solve this problem in the LA Unified School District and beyond.

Mobilize was originally created to complement the Exploring Computer Science curriculum (ECS), which was founded by Jane Margolis at UCLA and Joanne Goode (UCLA and Oregon State) and others.  ECS’s goal was to bring quality computer science education to all high school students. They worked with Deborah Estrin at UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS), to find a way to bring data into the curriculum, and from that, Mobilize was born around the idea of using participatory sensing to enhance math and science and computer science education. Introduction to Data Science, or IDS, is a year-long class designed as part of Mobilize that started a movement to focus on applicable math and statistics for students who may not succeed as easily in the typical Algebra classes or have a stronger interest in data science. 

In 2014, Mobilize was piloted as a partnership with UCLA and LAUSD, with a grant from the National Science Foundation to design a high school course that would teach statistical thinking, as well as computational analysis. IDS was approved by the UC system to count as the same requirement as Algebra 2 in the college entry A-G requirements, and count generally as a statistics course for all students. The main goal of Introduction to Data Science, is to “teach students to think critically about data,” a globally important skill with the amount of unexplored data surrounding us today. 

With IDS, students can now learn the necessary computational and analytical skills to succeed in this new field of data and data analysis in a variety of careers, from polling in politics, to medical trials, fashion norms, viral videos and so much more. “It’s not necessarily about providing students with the skills they need for college, but it also provides knowledge and understanding that all students need regardless of their career path,” Gould said, “we live in a day in which understanding data is a requirement for all people.” With the work of the statistics department students involved in Mobilize and IDS, students and staff at UCLA have inspired a new generation of data scientists who will be able and prepared to tackle novel data sets.

The Mobilize program engages students with the nature of data, computational thinking, algorithms, statistics, intersections of math and other disciplines with civic engagement, problem solving skills, innovation, inventiveness, and interdisciplinary collaboration. With this wide variety in curriculum, and a partnership with UCLA’s Center for Embedded Network Sensing Participatory Sensing technologies, Mobilize allows students to collect and analyze their own data through a mobile app, which creates engaging and hands-on projects for the students. 

IDS was mentioned and discussed on an episode of the popular Freakonomics podcast in fall of 2019.Suyen Machado, the program director for IDS, discussed how LAUSD is one of the largest school districts nationwide, and they are one of the first to implement this type of thinking for their students. “The students use a mix of large data sets generated by themselves through something called participatory sensing, which puts data collecting at the hands of the students,” Machado said, acknowledging the benefits of allowing the students to control their own projects. Many students were then quoted on Freakonomics, naming the interesting data analysis they have done themselves; for example, “I’m Saylee, I’m studying about crime rates in Los Angeles.” 

Since the Mobilize mission led by Rob Gould has been in place, over 9,500 students in 15 districts and 45 high schools have taken the class. It started in 2013 with ten brave teachers willing to stray away from the typical math classes, and has since flourished in many different schools. “We have definitely seen an increase in administrator interest in recent years,” Gould mentioned. Most recently, the team led by Gould received a grant from the College Futures Foundation to support the continued development of the Mobilize Introduction to Data Science high school course. 

“The most important part about Moiblize/IDS is equity; the goal of the program is to provide quality education in data science to students regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status.  The structure of the curriculum emphasizes participation and helps teachers implement inclusive classroom practices,” said Gould. Mobilize is about inclusivity and accessibility to the science of the future. 

Previous generations’ Home-Ec class is this generation’s data science class. Introduction to Data Science leading this generational shift by teaching applicable knowledge that can be used everyday to further understand the environment we live in and analyze the data accordingly. 

Although society has always created and collected data, only in the past few decades have there been the tools to analyze and use this data. With the amount of unexplored data online and in society, it is important that the education system follows the Mobilize mission and begins to implement more and more data science courses to the curriculum. UCLA and many other universities are ready to foster the data scientists of the future.


By Ciara Kelly