Data Mining

Turning public information into classroom applications

A big challenge in preparing students to be the next wave of capable leaders is developing their ability to use the “right” information to make the “right” decisions.  The alternative outcome would be a group of graduates that faces problems with an approach of, “How am I supposed to know?  I’ll just go with X.”  Using real data in course activities and showing students how to find this data goes a long way to instill the mentality that they don’t have to make things up.  Answers are out there, if they know where to look.  And students can tell the difference between a theoretical activity with arbitrary data and one that realistically addresses a legitimate social issue.  Relevance leads to increased motivation and better learning.  So where can you find something that fits your course?  The following is a list of data sources that you might find fun to browse to see what they offer for you and your students.

  •—  This data source links to a variety of governmental organizations to make their information available to the public. Select from a wide range of topics, including Education, Weather, and Ethics (of all things).   Fun fact: 34% of new houses built in 2012 did not include air conditioning. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  •  Google Public Data Explorer—   Providing global data sets and the added ability to select and graph multiple variables, this resource allows users to drill down to very specific world-wide statistics.  The European Union is especially well represented.  Fun fact:  While still the highest rate globally, the number of disease outbreaks in Africa decreased by 75% from 1999 to 2009 (Harvard Medical School).
  •—  If you want your data to come with a little more pizazz, this is where to go. features data sets that are displayed in interesting and interactive visual forms.  Why comb through a long data table about  company revenues, when you can see from its size and color that Freddy’s Frozen Custard is the fastest-growing restaurant company in Kansas?
Chart of fastest growing companies in Kansas

(Click the image to explore the chart)

  •  Wolfram Alpha — A bit different from the other sources listed here…  This is a numerically-focused search engine.  Type “saxophone,” and you will find that a sax plays a range of 2.583 octaves.  Type “uranium,” and get everything from its Mohs hardness scale rating to its relative universal abundance.  Results can be hit-or-miss, but it is interesting to see what Wolfram Alpha comes back with on some queries.

Beware… after a few minutes of playing with these sources, you will find yourself down a rabbit hole, determining which nation has the highest rate of disposable income. (It’s Chile, BTW.)   Maybe giving your students these resources will introduce them to this curiosity-inducing rabbit hole as well.  And better yet, maybe your students can create their own creative visual interpretations to clarify useful data for others.

Timely Bonus:

Check out this video (which just happened to be posted this week) on using data to create perplexity in students that entices them to learn more about a topic.  (Watch from 12:58 to 16:40.  Or better yet, just watch the whole thing, because Dan Meyer is awesome.)


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