BAR HARBOR — “A good scientist can collect data all day long, but a great scientist actually knows what to do with that data,” said Michelle Bailey, a teacher at Trenton Elementary School.
Her seventh- and eighth-grade students are among those in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System who are taking part in a research project with the MDI Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) and, in the process, developing data literacy skills.
“Data literacy is all about organizing, analyzing and interpreting data and discovering what you can do with it,” Bailey said.
This fall, MDIBL received a five-year, $1.2 million federal grant to establish a national model for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in data literacy. The idea is to do that with a research project focusing on the contamination of well water in Maine and New Hampshire by arsenic that leaches out of the bedrock. The project involves teachers and students in a number of schools in the two states.
Students collect samples of well water from their homes, and those samples are sent to a lab at Dartmouth College, where they are analyzed for arsenic and other contaminants. When the results come back, the students and their teachers use a software program to chart such factors as the geographic distribution of high-arsenic areas and the effects of different types of water filter systems on arsenic levels.
“You can see where the hotspots of arsenic are,” said Ruth Poland, a science teacher at MDI High School, whose students are taking part in the project. “It’s a great way to visualize the distribution of data points; you can map where the data points are within a six-mile radius, so all of the (data from individual well samples) is private.
“The idea is that students are collecting authentic data from their community, processing it — that’s the data literacy part, where they are trying to understand large data sets and their implications — and then interpreting and communicating to their community to make an impact,” Poland said.
She and Bailey said the students will do some type of community outreach project to let area residents know what the research shows and what can be done about unhealthy levels of arsenic in drinking water.
“Ultimately, our goal is to make our students knowledgeable and critical consumers of information,” Poland said. “It’s really important to understand all of the information we take in every day. That means understanding that how data is collected might affect how it’s interpreted and how bias can creep in and how information can be manipulated or unintentionally misinterpreted in so many different ways.”
The teachers involved in the project receive initial training and ongoing support.
“Teachers are matched up with a scientist mentor from MDIBL or Dartmouth, depending on their location,” Bailey said. “The mentor is basically there to help us with how best to organize our data.”
Arsenic contamination of well water was chosen as the subject of the research because it is a significant public health concern in this region.
“Arsenic is a particular problem in New England’s coastal ‘arsenic belt,’ where up to 60 percent of wells have levels that exceed EPA limits,” MDIBL representatives said in a press release.
“Residents in Maine and New Hampshire rely heavily on private wells for drinking water, but few have their wells tested. Long-term exposure [to arsenic], even at low levels, can lead to severe health problems…”
Jane Disney, MDIBL senior staff scientist and director of education, is leading the arsenic research and data literacy project.
“Students are more likely to expand their scientific inquiry skills and retain what they learn when the data have relevance,” she said. “The data they collect will be meaningful for them and their families, as well as for the larger community.”