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Finding nuggets in data mines

Finding nuggets in data mines

Biology course teaches students how to discover the real treasures amid the dross

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Fall turkey hunters who dejectedly ended up purchasing their holiday dinner at the market might next time consider help from Central Michigan University biology student Graham Lobert before the hunt.

Using data mining and analysis skills, he and three classmates created Tinder Tom, an information-packed guide to "everything you need to know about where to hunt turkeys in Michigan."

Inspired by popular dating app Tinder, the guide in poster form was their final project in Biology 212: Foundations of Form and Function.

It tells hunters where the most turkeys are, the number of hunters and turkeys harvested in each zone, and the percentage of hunters who rated their experience as excellent, very good or good.

In addition, the students used the data to tell hunters what areas to avoid because of toxins in nearby watersheds.

After considering all the data, a hunter can "Find a Match."

That kind of real-world, in-depth research is what biology faculty member Anna Monfils expects of her students ­­­— and of all CMU students.

Data analysis skills are key

"Anyone coming out of college now has to work with data," Monfils said. "We want our graduating students to be capable of moving science forward, finding solutions that deal with major issues like climate change and its impacts, sustainable resource management, impacts of invasive species, and biodiversity loss.

"CMU is on the cutting edge of training those students," she said, crediting a nearly $500,000 2017 National Science Foundation grant called Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education: The BLUE Initative.

With the grant, she and her co-grantees from CMU, other universities and private groups are working with other educators and scientists to create materials and curricula to train science students across the U.S. to work with big biodiversity data.

A different kind of biology class

To address the need for students to have cutting-edge research skills, Monfils is requiring them to use data to drive novel research projects and to think like scientists.

"Instead of having students sitting in a lab working with data that we supply, our students are tackling open-ended questions," she said. "We are showing them how to find the appropriate data and saying to them, 'Let's work with the data to find the answers for ourselves.'" 

The students primarily work with biodiversity data — information about an organism that goes back to its earliest records in natural history collections. It's complex and involves multiple disciplines, data and sources.

"It is not clean and pretty, but it's real," Monfils said.

The class teaches students how to appropriately evaluate the data.

"A lot of students don't question the data they find, which is a big problem, or they think that their own data doesn't matter," she said.

Part of really understanding how to use the data is understanding its origin and how it was acquired, she said, and knowing how to sift it to meet their needs.

She gave the example of media saying that the majority of Americans supported a particular candidate, when the majority of Americans didn't vote.

"What we want are thinking individuals in all disciplines who can address real-world questions using real data."

Students get a leg up

Lobert, a senior from Blanchard, Michigan, said that while he had used data before, the class was the first where he had to answer such questions as, "How do you know that you can trust this person's results?" and "How do you know that this research paper is a good one?"

"I discovered that it's not just getting the data, but knowing what from the vast ocean of data you can use or can't use to support your hypothesis."

While it took some trial and error to get to that point, he already has experienced the benefit of having the knowledge.

He said he had a leg up on many other students in a graduate-level zoology course he recently took because he was already familiar with using the large data sets and finding the data he needed.

CMU student researchers also have the advantage of access to two natural history collections: the herbarium in the College of Science and Engineering, and the Museum of Cultural and Natural History in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.


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