Community Engagement

Helping high school students apply data-driven science to COVID-19 

Helping high school students apply data-driven science to COVID-19 

Education, PPG Foundation

Creating a mathematical model to help predict the course of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Pennsylvania. Developing an interactive map to demonstrate how reduced travel in each state correlates with the number of new COVID-19 cases. While this may sound like the intricate work of professional data scientists, it is the product of high school students who participated in Pittsburgh DataWorks projects such as the Data Jam, a program offering hands-on data science experience and exploration into future career paths.

When Pittsburgh DataWorks, a nonprofit organization formed by software scientists and educators to help make Pittsburgh a “data-savvy” city, initially planned the annual Data Jam competition, organizers couldn’t have anticipated the critical role data would play to help the U.S. safely reopen amid COVID-19.

Student-led analytical science

Beginning in 2013, the Data Jam competition was a collaborative project of Pittsburgh-area universities, companies and high schools. Today it’s a platform for student-led analysis projects examining a variety of topics including factors that affect a school district’s success in educating students, factors that often lead to 911 calls, the impact of various factors on obesity rates in a region and the influence of bike lanes on air quality – a program funded by a grant from the PPG Foundation.

Devashish Saxena, vice president and chief digital officer, PPG

According to Devashish Saxena, vice president and chief digital officer, PPG, Data Jam is a hands-on, concrete way to help students discover not just the process of data science, but the importance of it in aiding how decisions are made at all levels in government, organizations and companies all over the world.

“The data science skillset is at the heart of powering Artificial Intelligence, and it is fundamental that we accelerate the rate at which we build this skill. Our ability to do so will be critical in ensuring that we build a talent that is deeply necessary more and more across the fabric of all organizations,” said Saxena.

The virtual finale of Data Jam included speaking remarks from data-industry leaders including Saxena.

“Despite disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Data Jam students were presented with a unique opportunity to experience first-hand the relevancy of analytical research and data application in today’s world,” said Saxena. “I was really impressed with the students’ ingenuity, and especially their openness in continuing to explore the data sets and what they were learning. The process of exploration is critical as it helps keep us open to learning new things.”

Program pivot amid COVID-19 crisis

The PPG Foundation grant helped the 2020 Data Jam to shift from an in-person competition to a virtual, project-led program and to expand its reach and remote access to additional students with a second project, the Pittsburgh DataWorks COVID-19 project.

The COVID-19 project was completely virtual and high school students from all over the Greater Pittsburgh region were able to join videoconferences twice a week that focused on analyzing data relevant to various aspects of the COVID-19 epidemic, such as the mental health consequences, the impact on local Pittsburgh businesses and the utility of the stay-at-home orders. The high schoolers participating in this project and their undergraduate mentors from the University of Pittsburgh connected via teleconference for weeks to study a number of factors in the COVID-19 pandemic.

To learn more about Data Jam and how Pittsburgh Dataworks adapted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, read a recent article in the online science publication, ScienceNode, “Making data lemonade.

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