One tech start-up is betting that more grade-school students will pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math if their curriculum contains real world data.
New York-based TuvaLabs provides a variety of activities based on publicly available data, often termed “open data,” to teach math skills.
TuvaLabs’ three-person team collects data sets it thinks young students will find interesting — most popular TV shows, the nutritional value of pumpkin cookies, secondary school enrollment in India and China, or SAT scores across Brooklyn public schools, for instance. It then might write an accompanying word problem. “Find the total number of calories in 4 pumpkin cookies,” one question asks, as instructions take a student step-by-step through an activity. Teachers can also use the data to create their own assignments.
So far, TuvaLabs’ co-founders Harshil Parikh and Jaimin Patel have relied mostly on personal funds, though they have raised some capital from early-stage investors in New York and Philadelphia. Parikh said he hopes the platform can remain free for teachers and students, especially because public school budgets are so limited.
“We’re building an environment that allows students to become data literate,” Parikh said.
Since launch a year and a half ago, TuvaLabs has received requests for specific data sets from students themselves, such as statistical comparisons between basketball players Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
While it’s too early to measure TuvaLabs’ impact on her students, statistics teacher Eleanor Terry, who teaches at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, said she noticed her students completing more of their homework assignments when they’re allowed to choose what data to work with from TuvaLabs.
In the past, Terry would give each student the same generic data for each problem — heights and weights of alligators, for example. Now, she lets them answer general statistics questions based on the data sets of their choice. “Anytime you have ownership of what you’re doing, you increase completion. If I give them the alligator activity, they peter out.”
Joli Barker, a third grade teacher at Slaughter Elementary School in McKinney, Tex., uses TuvaLabs to teach her students basic math skills.
“When you get into real world data, it’s large numbers, and that really drives home the point to a kid. We typically use data for graphing and word problems and math, and we always tend to use bite-size pieces of information for kids. It’s really important they understand sometimes it affects millions of people, or billions of different units of whatever it is we’re collecting that data for,” Barker said. The classroom recently crunched some data sets on deforestation and recycling, which TuvaLabs collected from the Energy Information Administration.
Most recently, Barker’s classroom used data about energy consumption and recycling in Texas to persuade the school district reduce its paper waste. The students then did their own research on the cost of each ream of paper and the statistical effect it had on test performance.
“It’s super empowering, especially for little kids — seven and eight-year-old kids to be effecting real change through data,” she said.
But she noted funding for such programs is scarce. Though TuvaLabs is free, if they were to charge, “I would write a grant to get it.”