General Science


Big Data in the Classroom

NOVA recently launched the Cloud Lab—an online interactive that enables authentic student research with scientific data. NOVA Education celebrates the release of this third Lab with a special blog series exploring the importance of Big Data and its implications for STEM education, starting with the following.

Big Data. If you haven’t already heard about it, your hard drive has. We are generating digital information at such a frightening pace that some scientific fields are now dealing with a “data catastrophe”—where more data is being collected than can physically be stored. In 2011, Science magazine explored the issues surrounding this increasingly huge influx of research data in a special edition. From this collection of articles reaching across a breadth of scientific fields, two themes emerged:

  1. Most scientific disciplines are finding the data deluge to be extremely challenging
  2. Tremendous opportunities can be realized if we can better organize and access the data. (Source)

It is this second theme of opportunity that I would like to explore through the lens of K-12 formal education and teacher Professional Development in a series of blog postings that I am calling Big Data in the Classroom.

© iStockphoto

But before I start throwing any facts and figures at you, here is a personal story about what this transition looks like to someone engaged in scientific research.

When I was an undergraduate physics major, I spent 4 nights in 1996 on a mountain in Arizona observing a few individual stars to research their variability. My method involved measuring the rate of incoming photons and graphing the data to generate a light curve for each variable star. Between weather and equipment issues, I was able to gather only a few hours of usable data over the course of four nights—thankfully this was enough to finish my senior research project.

Now, 1996 wasn’t that long ago (at least I like to tell myself that), but if I was doing research in astrophysics today, my methods would look quite different. Thanks to robotic telescopes and a fleet of different satellites, many sky surveys have gathered and stored spectra and images across multiple wavelengths of light, offering researchers large collections of data just waiting to be queried and downloaded. Gone is the image of the astronomer sitting with their eye to a telescope eyepiece. Now, I could simply go to the AAVSO or SDSS sites and download the data I need for my research. More importantly, I would never need to travel to a mountain, wait for good weather, or possibly even operate a telescope or learn a constellation!

But why should you, as a science educator, care about this? “Big Data” represents the fundamental evolution of the tools and methods of scientific research—and the gathering and availability of data is no longer the limiting factor. The Digital Renaissance is here, and in many fields there is now more data than scientists know what to do with. Adding to this volume of new digital data, there are also efforts to bring specimens that are currently deep in storage in natural history museums—called “dark data”— into the digital age, making their secrets available to researchers, to the general public, and to you and your students.

As a science educator, the implications of this sea-change in the very nature of scientific data and information touches everything from you and your practice, to what your students—future scientists or not—will face in their careers and lives. It also informs the very design of your classroom laboratory equipment and lessons, as well as your selection of professional development experiences. In the next blog in this series, I will explore some of the implications of “Big Data” for your classroom instruction.

To further investigate “Big Data” in science, visit:


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Rachel Connolly

As NOVA’s Director of Education, Rachel considers it her mission in life to find new ways to make complex concepts accessible. Before NOVA, Rachel has served as the director of the planetarium at the University of Louisville, as the Astrophysics Education Manager at the American Museum of Natural History, and as a high school physics teacher in New York City. She is currently working to complete her PhD in Science Education at Columbia University.