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New Legislation to Boost Data Science in K-12 and Higher Ed

The Data Science and Literacy Act introduced last month aims to improve, and increase access to, data science education by funding professional development, new curricula and STEM equity programs.

A person working on graphs on a tablet using an electronic pencil.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2021 that employment in data science-related jobs would grow 36 percent by 2031 as various industries look to use data to streamline day-to-day operations. To meet the growing demand for data professionals, education policy advocates are lauding the recently proposed Data Science and Literacy Act, which aims to strengthen and expand data literacy and science programming in K-12 schools and higher education nationwide.

According to a news release, the legislation — introduced last month by Reps. Haley Stevens, D-Mich.; Don Beyer, D-Va.; Young Kim, R-Calif.; and Jim Baird, R-Ind. — would establish a voluntary federal program through which K-12 schools, colleges and universities could apply for funding geared toward data science education. The bill specifically would fund professional development for current and aspiring data science educators, the creation and accessibility of curriculum materials, and efforts to reduce course equity gaps in students from populations that have historically been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math.

The bill has so far been met with the support of nearly 20 education policy and data professional organizations, such as the American Statistical Association (ASA), as well as the data science professional association Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), which said in a recent public statement that efforts to develop K-12 data science curricula led by trained instructors is “essential to meet workforce and societal standards to build future researchers.” According to INFORMS President Laura Albert, one of the legislation’s core goals is to promote data literacy and data science proficiency at early grade levels, thereby fostering an early interest in related career fields and generating STEM students to meet future workforce needs, as well as to accelerate research across disciplines in the years to come.

“This act would take a bigger step in training teachers to then train students in data literacy,” Albert said. “We’re looking at data being used to drive innovation and decisions across all sectors. It’s really cross cutting, and it’s not just the data and information sector. … In general, data literacy will help put our nation in the best position to make innovations for economic prosperity, and K-12 education is going to be such an important part of that.”

According to ASA K-12 Statistical Ambassador Christine Franklin, students don’t develop “statistical thinking” by taking just one statistics course. Franklin said people encounter huge volumes of data in their daily lives and increasingly digitized workplaces, and they need to learn as students how to make sense of data in order to compete in the job market.

“Imagine a world that naturally relies on data and statistical thinking to drive discovery and inform sound decision-making. To achieve this vision, acquiring data acumen and becoming statistically literate should be as core to our school-level curriculum as reading and writing. Data can be numbers, counts and measurements but also images, video, sounds or words, so we need to grapple with the fast-changing nature of data and the tools required for analysis to ensure that our curriculum is relevant for students,” Franklin said in an email to Government Technology. “Elementary students are naturally curious about their world and ask statistical investigative questions that require the collection of data. Non-traditional data such as photos, music and videos are commonplace to their world. It is essential to nurture this curiosity and help them start learning how to make sense of this data and to understand variability and the role of probabilistic thinking versus deterministic thinking in making decisions.”

Noting that most K-12 teachers have little or no formal training in statistics, Franklin said the legislation represents a step in the right direction by providing financial support and professional development. She said new standards and curricula should aim to make students comfortable with statistical problem-solving by the time they graduate high school.

“Having this foundation from K-12 would support local efforts to provide data science and literacy instruction through professional and curriculum development and, for community colleges, making connections to area businesses for their workforce data science needs,” Franklin wrote. “There is no doubt data-intensive jobs will continue growing in coming decades; what’s critical is making sure all U.S. students have an opportunity to pursue those jobs. In order for that to happen, we must begin the effort for students to become statistically and data literate at K-12.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.