NPR Interview Spawns PBL Idea

big data book“Big Data: the decade-long explosion of digital information, much of it personal, … has become available to companies and governments. This trend in predictions and decisions is the topic of a new book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think.

One of the book’s authors, Kenneth Cukier, joins NPR’s Steve Inskeep to talk about how Big Data helps Target detect pregnancies, the police track potential criminals — and has even changed the way he talks to his kids.” -NPR Staff

NPR never ceases to amaze me.

As I was driving into work this morning I listened to this interview.  I found it fascinating and terrifying at the same time.  I also realized that I probably don’t want to know what kind of “big data” has been collected about me.  I quickly figured out that unless I pay cash for everything and stay offline, then that cache of info will continue to grow.  I’m too much of a tech nerd, both at home and at work, to be able to go off the grid like that cold-turkey.  Or even go offline at all, no matter how gently I did or did not wean my way off.

After I got over the mental picture of my mountain of data, I started thinking of how important this concept is, and how we should be including it in classrooms.  The creation of a PBL idea was just beginning…

My science brain immediately went to the cross-cutting concept of pattern identification.  Then I went to the math (and of course CCSS) concepts like the statistics, correlations, and “critical mass” of data needed to have enough information to see any patterns.  The examples of assigning numbers and locations of police presence based on past patterns, and how much prediction is helpful and where is the line between helping the community versus individual privacy tied in Social Studies.

I’m thinking that there has to be some kind of PBL unit here.  Maybe with high school juniors or seniors looking into the roles of government and media?

Having not seen the 2002 movie Minority Report, I looked it up on Wikipedia.  Much to my delight, I found out that the movie is loosely based on a short story of the same name by Philip K Dick.  Now there are even better ELA connections!  Maybe a comparison and contrast of the movie and the short story?  Finding stories on NPR provides such an easy way to differentiate – the broadcast transcript and podcast allow students to choose if they want to read, listen or do both.  They also have the control of pacing by re-reading or rewinding as they see fit.  There is also an excerpt from the book for those students who might be interested in reading further.  By clicking through a few other links in the interview, I found the original New York Times article that describes how and why Target wanted to use data collected by shoppers in order to predict pregnancies.

So what do you think?  Does this idea have the possibility of growing into a full-blown PBL idea?  Or do I need more coffee and/or sleep before driving into work in the morning?  I would love to hear about the modifications or other ideas anyone has.  I would love even more if someone wanted to try this out with students and let me know how it goes. Please feel free to add thoughts, suggestions and ideas in the comment sections below.

Update 5/8/13:  After discussing the book and my post with a colleague, I realized that I had missed the inclusion of several science-themed thoughts.  The first major one is that this is not aligned to science.  There are some tangential connections, but, as much as I liked it, I can’t make the stretches.  It could still be nurtured into an integrated project with math, ELA and social studies, but I just can’t make science fit in.

The other detail I failed to mention is that some of the discussion promoted looking for connections in data just to find them, without examining the “why” and the “how” of the connections.  One example mentioned in the interview and book was the assumptions about orange cars.  The author was more interested in the connection between orange cars and reports of fewer break downs.  Part of the discussions I would have with students what science is and is not, and what happens when people accept what they are told without running it through their own “filter.”  This could easily lead into a discussion about responsible media use in general, and always asking questions to dig beneath initial thoughts or reactions.


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