Desert Data Jam

Desert Data Jam

By Libby Grace


Ask any teacher why they do what they do and I guarantee most will allude to the “light bulb” moments of teaching. They may tell stories of students who perch on the cusp of understanding, and with guidance, find it. These are the moments that lead many to teach and keep them teaching. Ask any teacher what is the most challenging part of their jobs, and many will tell you other pressures make it harder and harder to find these moments in their classrooms.


Constantly challenged to synthesize light blub moments and performance scores, teachers must find a balance of objective achievement and subjective learning. This is the dance of the teacher. Desert Data Jam is one way that Asombro supports teachers in this dance. Combining data literacy and student creativity to communicate scientific data is the heart of Desert Data Jam.


In 2011, Asombro staff began noticing that students were struggling while working with data – whether collected by others or on their own. To a middle or high school student, scientific data can be as intimidating as a foreign language, and to many it may as well be one. We hoped that we could design a program that could give students tools to find ease in interpreting and communicating data. We wanted to not only increase data literacy, but to assure students that their artistic talents have a role in science too.


Then, Kris Havstad from the USDA’s Jornada Experimental Range brought our attention to “Flip Flop Fly Ball: An Infographic Baseball Adventure” by Craig Robinson. Taking the complex statistics that are often part of baseball, Robinson creates images that make baseball data accessible to anybody. We thought, what if students did just this, but with scientific data? What if we gave students ecological data? Could they retell that data in a non-traditional way? From this, the idea of Desert Data Jam was born.


After successful pilots in the 2011/12 school year with nearly 100 high school students, Desert Data Jam has grown to reach more than 1,200 students since its initiation. This includes expanding to develop a middle school division beginning in the 2014/15 school year. The Data Jam model has spread, and there are currently at least 4 Data Jam Competitions nationally, including in places like Puerto Rico and Baltimore.


The goal of Desert Data Jam is for students to develop a creative project and presentation board that explains a locally relevant, ecological dataset to an audience that may be unfamiliar with the concepts involved.  Asombro visits sixteen, 7th grade classes in the Las Cruces Public School District four times throughout the school year to introduce and support students in completing Desert Data Jam projects. Each visit has a different focus, from introducing the project and giving examples, to helping students dig into the data and identify a trend, to reviewing the scientific practices used to collect the data. Across all visits, we encourage students to find inspiration in their own interests to develop a creative project that tells the story of their dataset. Once students have crunched the numbers, found their trends, and crafted creative ways to tell their data’s story, they can compete in the final competition hosted by Asombro in the Jornada’s building at New Mexico State University.


The 2015/16 school year was my first introduction to Desert Data Jam. Since then, I have worked with most participating classes, picking apart the data with hundreds of students. I find myself constantly reassuring them that in this project, their own interests should drive their learning. Together, we work through any frustration and intimidation of interpreting data and find ourselves on the other side, with an understanding of scientific data and an eagerness to communicate it creatively.  When I see their creative projects and how they accurately represent their dataset (legend and labels included!), these are my light bulb moments. In this data and information driven world, if students complete Desert Data Jam with the ability to think critically and re-communicate information, then we have achieved our own goal for Desert Data Jam.


In the spring of each school year, Asombro hosts the Desert Data Jam competition. The top projects from each participating class come together to compete for the highest acknowledgements (and cash prizes). It’s at this event, browsing the final projects that I feel the sense of pride that many educators are familiar with, the one that stems not from my own accomplishments, but rather the accomplishments of students. Among tie-dye t-shirts, storybooks, video games, leatherwork, newscasts, and zombie videos (to name a few), I can feel the creativity pulsing the room.  And while my hope is to inspire students to create something from scientific data, I end up full of inspiration and optimism by just how creative our future scientists are.