Making Meaning – Presenting Reality: Data, Spreadsheets, and Databases
Recordings for the sessions are available here:
What is/are Data?
I used to teach my middle school students that data are observable facts. In most cases, data are results of measurement as one form of observation. I guess you could state that these would be quantitative representations of reality. On the other hand, data can represent qualitative observations of reality as well.
If we were to get deeply philosophical about data, we could look at how data are related to information and knowledge. In this way, we can look at levels of meaning. Data all by themselves really have no meaning – they just exist, regardless of whether they have been measured or observed.
Data that has been given some relativity or relevance by an observer or collector becomes information. To provide context think of how the word information is used in terms like: information processor, information technology, information desk. In each case data are given some kind of context and that context provides meaning. As educators, we try to help students find that meaning from data. Think of the difference between an almanac and a textbook. An almanac is a collection of data, a textbook by itself offers information.
To go one step beyond, to reach the level of knowledge, it is necessary to provide avenues of larger context, even context that doesn’t exist yet. How sets of information exist as links to each other and how those links can be retained in context provides a much broader and deeper meaning as knowledge. Again, as educators in an inquiry-based classroom, we provide opportunities for students to gather both data and information, find the relationships, and incorporate it all into knowledge. Think of using an almanac to get the data on an area’s climate, and compare different area climates for a set of information about world climate. By relating those sets of information about climates to special features about the areas, you can construct knowledge of biomes.
All this explanation helps us to understand that there is a continuum of abstraction that reaches from the lowest level of abstraction, data; through a higher level, information; to the highest level, knowledge.
So, as teachers, we try to do what we can to help the students derive meaning from data. But first, we have to get that data. So, let’s take a look at what we can do to collect data.
Of course, there is the old observe and record method. Just look and take notes on paper. We can always use a computer to log our notes, as well. NoteShare can do this very well, whether the data is in text, numerical, image or audio form.One method that can save a lot of trouble and focus on the data we want folks to work with, would be to fill out forms. You know, the old Last Name First routine. Probably most of the forms you filled out were on paper, but the data on those paper forms probably made their way into a computer somewhere to become part of a database.
You could always type the data directly into a spreadsheet, cell by cell. Or you could employ probes or sensors to get immediate real-time data into some form of collector, be it spreadsheet, graph, or database.
Way back when in prehistoric times, 1980, VisiCalc was the killer app. It was one of the progenitors of the personal computer revolution. It was simple – a ledger type format that allowed mass formulaic calculations and showed graphs. Wow! Now the idea has evolved into an integral part of office suites of applications, like Excel in MS Office, Numbers in iWork, and the like, such as NeoOffice and OpenOffice. There’s even a spreadsheet in Google Apps.
Spreadsheets incorporate data entry, either manually or by forms. Remember, these data have no meaning unto themselves. Most good spreadsheets allow you to design forms for users to input data so they won’t be put off by the look and expanse of a spreadsheet – sort of “the man behind the curtain” thing. In a way, the given choices of data to enter add some meaning and point the way to information.
Data can be manipulated in spreadsheets, too. Even the most rudimentary spreadsheets have many formulas that allow you to play with your data in a meaningful way. This is another example of the transition from data to information. The relationships among the data add meaning.
Finally, the data can be analyzed, as well. People who are lucky enough to look at numbers and see trends can glean a lot just by looking at the resultant values. However, spreadsheets can take those results and add even more meaning by turning those values into graphs and charts. Visualization helps to lead the way to knowledge and makes the extraction of meaning easier.
Let’s take a look at an example of spreadsheets in science. First we see the blank template for data entry. Next, students visit the US Naval Observatory website to get sunrise and sunset data for their locale. They then enter the data into the spreadsheet. So far – it’s just data with no meaning yet.
Next, the formulae in the spreadsheet calculate the length of sunlight for the dates selected. A sharp person can see the trend in the resultant values. Next, a bar graph that displays the duration of the daylight in a visual form allows students to see what is happening. This is information derived from the data.
The final steps would be to provide context that leads to knowledge. That context could be lecture, comparing graphs, or other forms of synthesis.
So, spreadsheets present opportunities to deal with reality at a number of different levels and can make meaning for students.
Probes, Sensors and real time data entry
A very powerful way to leap from data to information to knowledge is exemplified by two applications on the MLTI MacBook: Data Studio and Logger Pro. The key feature of applications like them is using probes or sensors to monitor a system. The probe continually reads the data it is designed for (temperature, distance, force, etc.) and enters them into a spreadsheet or graph.
The graph instantly relates time and the data collected and displays that relationship. Multiple sets of data can be monitored at once, like temperature, air pressure, humidity, and altitude to immediately show how they might be related. Instant meaning! Both companies supply learning experiences with their probeware and software, usually in bundles, and even ways to construct your own activities.
Here’s an example of a “workbook” from PASCO. Teachers can put together workbooks they way they might use a word processor. These workbooks provide for forms for data entry, along with real time data collection from the probeware.
Databases and Management
In general, you can think of a database as a large collection of data, sorted by records and fields. Think of a bank of filing cabinets, with file folders (fields) that contain data (records.)
There are thousands, if not millions, of databases floating around the internet and on company servers. They are very useful, but only with some form of data entry and retrieval. Most folks use some kind of database management software (DBMS) to get reports that extract data in a form that is meaningful and useful. Again, providing a context to observe the data.
Most of us will not be creating databases, but we can all access incredible amounts of data from databases in our district or on the web. Your school most likely uses a Student Information System, like Powerschool or Infinite Campus. These are ways to interact with databases. You have probably entered data into the system, and retrieved information that you wanted.
Those of you who use MARVEL! (and I hope that is a great number of you) are interacting with a collection of databases in ways that are helpful in your students’ and your own research and information retrieval.
PASCO’s MyWorld is a Geographic Information System (GIS) application that loads a database into the system and relates the data to geographic data to help visualize how place is related to data or phenomena. ESRI’s Arc Explorer is a more widely used GIS application and is available as a free download.
There are all sorts of databases for all sorts of data:
like this one from the US Census Bureau
or this one from the CIA (spooky, huh?) for information like an almanac
or this one from OECD for education with a global spin:
or this one from NOAA
Using Numbers to investigate the meaning of Pi
Daylight lesson for Excel
Pasco resources page
Logger Pro Labs
Activities for MyWorld