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Linda Mah
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Big Dive into Big Data at KAMSC

Juniors and Seniors Explore Topic with Data Analysis

When the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center found itself with a little time on its hands, it decided to go for a big idea.

For the second year, KAMSC has held its Big Data Dive during the two days after the end of finals and before the beginning of the second semester.

KAMSC Director Dr. Michael Tanoff said the Big Data Dive “is the epitome of STEM education. The students have a limited amount of time to solve a problem and to present their solution. What they produce is amazing.”

The project for juniors and seniors was the brainchild of physics teacher Mike Sinclair and natural sciences teacher Cheryl Hach. They decided they would give the students a topic and ask them to do a fast and furious run at data analysis of the issue over the course of two days. Last year the students looked at the issue of sustainability.

“This is a real immersion project,” Hach said. “Kids need to know how to work with data. There’s so much data out there. I saw an article that said something like if we set up a solar array in someplace like Arizona, we could generate enough electricity for the entire country. “Is that true? I don’t know. But the idea is to have kids think along those lines, to ask if this is possible.”

This year the topic was alternative energy resources. The project kicked off with a keynote talk by Timothy Sparks, vice president of Electric Grid Integration for Consumers Energy. He is responsible for integrating all generation resource technologies with the company’s electric grid.

After listening to the lecture, students broke into subgroups organized around topics such as cost, sustainability and technology related to coal, fossil fuels, wind energy, wave technology, and solar and nuclear power. They researched their topics in the afternoon and later that evening at home. Then the various subgroups came together in each of their alternative energy groups and quickly sketched out a presentation hitting the main points of their research — which they presented to the whole group of students on the second afternoon.

Loy Norrix junior Anna Puca said she enjoyed the project because it was interesting and gave the students the real-world experience of teaching others.

“I didn’t know a lot about wind energy before,” Puca said. “We didn’t have a lot of time, but I did learn about the different types of wind turbines and about the economic benefits. I was a little scared going into the presentation, because I wasn’t sure about what kinds of questions we were going to be asked.”

During their presentations, the teams had to answer questions that Hach, Sinclair and fellow students posed about topics such as specific technologies, costs, energy transfer and batteries.

For Sinclair, the real benefit of the project is the way it encourages an interdisciplinary look at topics. Too often students are wrapped up in individual classes, learning physics or biology or chemistry. “This forces them to think across disciplines,” he said.

“It was interesting. I learned a lot about our topic and some about the others,” said Kalamazoo Central junior Ethan Fonger, who took a look at wind energy. “Like, I didn’t realize the life span of most turbines is about 20 years and that maintenance is where most of the cost comes from for this and most other alternative energies.

“The other thing is, it’s good to have a general knowledge about how what we’re studying plays into the real world.”

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