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SUA Teacher Uses National Data to Challenge STEM Students

Orise Students

Story courtesy Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE)

Carol Burns, a teacher at Saint Ursula Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, educates ninth graders about radionuclides and radioactive decay as a part of the physical science curriculum. To enhance the students' learning experience, Burns allows her students to select projects pertaining to real-world applications of radiation science. In the past, projects have focused on nuclear energy in Ohio or the sale of radioactive de-icing brine. This year, however, Burns found new applications for the projects applying data from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Comprehensive Epidemiologic Data Resource (CEDR).

Managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), CEDR is a free data repository comprised of health studies of DOE workers and environmental studies of areas surrounding DOE facilities. DOE provides the public and scientific research community with access to de-identified data to examine past studies and serve as a basis to formulate new studies. Educators are encouraged to leverage the data for STEM classroom instruction.

One subset of the studies featured within CEDR that became a popular choice among the students included the DOE studies conducted on the Radium Dial Painters, who were fictionalized as ‘The Radium Girls” in both book and film productions. Students worked with those studies to create seven different projects. As a part of their projects, the students experienced many different aspects of data science such as data dictionaries, research questions, data cleaning, data analysis, and data visualization. Some students learned Python coding language to complete the analyses required for their projects.

Overall, the student projects examined:

  • radiation exposure and miscarriages,
  • the relationship between time as radium dial painter and the number of teeth lost,
  • the amount of bone decay in the radium dial painters,
  • elevated calcium levels in the radium dial painters,
  • the relationship between general health and time as a radium dial painter,
  • the relationship between occupation and cause of death, and
  • the history of radium dial painters and the historical uses of radium.

“Using the CEDR data gave my students the freedom to create their own projects and bring unique findings into our class discussions,” said Burns. “Students enjoyed the opportunity to work with real data and experience some of the messiness of research often reduced or eliminated in typical science classes.”

Challenges the students faced while working with the real data in CEDR included the need to convert from string values to integer values and pull data from multiple spreadsheets.

Burns continued, “While this was a semester-long project, these data sets would also be useful for smaller lessons and would work very well for helping students understand the need for skills in unit conversions and dimensional analysis. My students and I are grateful for the opportunity to access the CEDR data.”

At the conclusion of their projects, the students presented their work to ORISE scientists with subject matter expertise in epidemiology, biostatistics, data science, computer programming, health physics, and K-12 education. Following the presentations, the students held a question-and-answer session where they asked about the radium dial painters’ data, the educational backgrounds of the ORISE scientists, and how they became interested in radiation science and research.

“The students’ projects were very impressive. The scientific questions around our understanding of radiation and health effects that were examined by this group of high school students are very relevant to ongoing research supported by DOE, such as the Million Person Study,” said Dr. Ashley Golden, Director of ORISE Health Studies. “We are so excited that Ms. Burns is using the CEDR data to introduce these future scientists and researchers to radiation science and other STEM concepts in the classroom.”

ORISE Health Studies plans to continue its partnership with Burns and Saint Ursula Academy to enhance these projects and students’ learning experiences. Additionally, the ORISE STEM Workforce Development K-12 education program plans to work with Burns to share her experience incorporating the CEDR data in the classroom with other teachers. This partnership will enhance an already ongoing collaboration between the K-12 education program and the ORISE Health Studies program.

“Using real-world data in a classroom setting is extremely valuable. Many careers require data literacy and it’s never too early to begin developing that skill in students, said ORISE K-12 Associate Manager, Jennifer Tyrell. “Doing so with data from a real health study empowers students to translate their classroom learning into the ability to solve problems that affect their lives and the lives of others. It also eliminates the age-old question, ’When am I ever going to use this?’”