Tinkering with Data
Concerned about the number of fireworks injuries that occur each year, the Fireworks Safety Organization plans to develop a public service announcement for television. To determine their target audience and deliver a powerful message, the group must take a close, analytical look at actual fireworks injury data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to answer these questions: Who is typically hurt by fireworks? What age and gender? What type of injury occurs most frequently? When do the injuries happen?
This investigation of real-world data is one of many featured in Digging into Data with TinkerPlots. Written by EDC staff, this new book uses TinkerPlots software to help middle school mathematics students explore data, make conjectures, create and interpret graphs, and write evidence-based conclusions. The lessons engage students in learning key data analysis concepts as they investigate real-world data sets on a variety of topics including cats, middle school students, sports injuries, and basketball .
TinkerPlots software, which was developed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst with funding from the National Science Foundation, allows students in grades 4-8 to create colorful dot plots, bar graphs, histograms, and scatterplots to help them sift through data and analyze patterns. The program meets the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards for data analysis and provides students with a strong foundation for high school statistics.
“In TinkerPlots, students are able to manipulate data and make comparisons by creating a variety of graphs that display two or three variables at a time,” says EDC’s Amy Brodesky, one of the authors. For instance, the TinkerPlots graph below uses fireworks injury safety data and is separated by age, gender, and injury type. Using their cursor, students can easily change variables such as which data attributes are graphed, the type of display, and the scale of the graph.
Digging into Data with Tinkerplots is adaptable. It aligns with NCTM standards on data analysis, communication, and number and operation; and can be used in conjunction with any mathematics curriculum. Teachers can select lessons to meet their curriculum objectives and their students’ needs.
Each lesson features a brief introduction during which students write hypotheses about what the data will show, an exploration period for students to investigate and analyze the data to answer questions, and a wrap-up period for students to share their findings. Most lessons can be completed within 50 minutes and emphasize the importance of in-depth analysis of data and providing evidence for conclusions. “With TinkerPlots the exploration is as important as the final product,” says Brodesky.
Brodesky recalls one student who used the program to create a circle graph to answer a question. While doing the activities, the student realized that this representation wasn’t the best choice and that another visual would work better. “She learned that just because you can create a particular graph, doesn’t mean you should,” says Brodesky.
In the fireworks problem is a good example of this. Here, a histogram is good choice for showing the distribution of ages but a circle graph is better for illustrating the proportion of each type of injury that occurred.
Amy Doherty, a math teacher in Waltham, Massachusetts, co-authored the book and pilot tested TinkerPlots in her middle school classroom. The immediate impact of the program was remarkable, she said. “The students loved it. The kids were very motivated to come up with creative and unique graphs. They were not afraid to explore; if they made a mistake they would just hit the refresh button and try again. TinkerPlots enabled them to see in a different way and ask ‘what if?’ questions about the data. Our classroom discussions were very rich.”
Doherty described the intense collaboration between the book authors and the software developers: “The TinkerPlots software was being developed at same time as we were working on creating the lessons for the book, so we were in constant contact with the developers about adding things to and tweaking the software. As a teacher, it was great to have say in a classroom program’s development.”
Digging into Data with TinkerPlots is written by Brodesky, Doherty, and James Stoddard, a math teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts. The book was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation and is published by Key Curriculum Press.