Monday, June 15, 2015

Why a data science camp? A bird's eye view of the day

Having just finished what was probably a first attempt at something of this sort in India (and across the world too, I guess), we ought to be patting ourselves on our backs for having done a decent job. We organized a “data camp” for kids from the 6th to 9th grades a couple of hours back. We had 15 students participating in the camp, who didn’t quite have an idea of what to expect out of it. Furthermore, I had parents coming up to me fully surprised as to why Aspiring Minds would even be interested in something like this. And the answer to that was quite simple – because we believe in it. We believe that understanding data driven decision making would be an indispensable skill which would be expected of everyone in the years to come.  This is much like what’s happening with computer programming; knowing how to code today is not the lingua franca of just software engineers – a field of science simply can’t do without it today. We believe that this distinction would be taken up by the data sciences in the years to come. And to do something about this belief, we thought organizing this data camp would be a good first step and we’re quite glad we did :)

It was sheer fun – from understanding what kids find easy to grasp and what they don’t to gauging how they learn information not presented to them in the usual classroom format; was quite fascinating to see all this unfold before me. A couple of things that particularly caught my eye were (pardon me for a smiley excess in the notes that follow; it was a lot of fun and I’m visibly and mentally pleased about the whole experience) –

  • Students aren’t really exposed to understanding the gravity of real world problems and how we use science and engineering in interesting ways to solve them. When Samarth opened the session with an example of how John Snow solved the cholera problem in London in the 1900s by visualizing information, there were some very interesting responses which the kids gave to how they would have solved the problem. It seemed that they really hadn’t encountered problem solving of the “real kind” before. I hope they’d have enjoyed seeing how most of the problems we see every day are not all that hard after all and just require some common sense (which is not so common after all?) and some persistence to get it done.
  •  I saw first hand how time consuming it can be to give a good primer to a subject which an audience is probably very new to. I guess we fell short of accommodating enough time to the introduction part and were being ambitious in hoping they’d be on board in an hour’s discussion. But this is something we’ll definitely work on in our subsequent attempts (yes, yes; we’ll have more. We’re not stopping this soon, a duh.)
  • Every class has its know-it-alls and the oops-didn’t-get-that :). The very essence of teaching something new would be to ensure that by the end of a session, everyone is very comfortable with the material that’d been introduced. We had quite a variance in the age group and the academic maturity in the kids who visited our session. I’d have loved to spend a lot more hours on the couple I interacted with who found it hard to relate certain concepts they’ve learnt in their class to what they were doing in their hands-on exercise. That’s where the real challenge was for me. Likewise, I’d have loved to spend time with the know-it-alls and challenged the limits of their understanding. In our next session, I guess (twiddles fingers). As a note - a systemic way of ensuring we don’t have a stark issue of this sort going ahead would simply be to have kids from at least the 8th grade or above to participate. That promises to be a fun-fest!
  • Percentages as a concept is so undervalued! It was amazing how kids were rattling off percentages when given a numerator and a denominator but were finding it hard to relate to an application of it. The dataset we’d given out had an equal number of male/female photographs + a short description of their tastes and we’d asked the students to mark whether they’d befriend them by going through such information. We wanted to see whether there was any bias in the way people befriended people – whether some picked more males than females or the other way around. And the only way to understand this was to think about percentages. Of the people whom a kid had befriended, we wanted to see how many were males and how many females, giving a sense of how the distribution had shifted from a 50-50 split in the raw data to something new here. And some of these kids couldn’t really wrap their heads around this. After a lot of careful deliberation did it start making sense. Very cool to see the reality behind such concepts sink in!
  • There’s always a class sweet heart :). There was this fun young chap who kept us entertained with his quick wit and his “golu face”. It always is a pleasure to be around such folks.
In all, it was a great way to spend the weekend. I definitely look forward to more of these. Great effort by some of the guys in our group – Harsh, Gursimran, Nishant in particular to seeing things through. A loud shout out to Varun for having been this ever so polite audience to my rants on pursuing such a camp and for suggesting that we actually go ahead with it for kids :)

Will want to see this grow and probably evolve into something far more intensive and meaningful for undergraduates and high school seniors. I’ll aim for the stars hoping to at least land on the moon. Until then.

Shashank Srikant

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