CU Next Award grant will fund initiatives to teach CU Boulder students to use data to address pressing issues related to climate change in Colorado
While University of Colorado Boulder students have long been exposed to the technical aspects of data science, using data for advocacy purposes has not been a formal part of this instruction.
However, thanks to a $300,000 CU Next Award grant received in May, the Data Advocacy for All project will soon provide students with the opportunity to learn how to ethically and effectively use data to raise public awareness and drive social change, according to Laurie Gries, associate professor of writing, rhetoric, and communication.
“I am absolutely delighted that the university thought that a project grounded in data justice and data literacy was important enough that they are willing to put quite a bit of money behind it,” says Gries, who spearheaded the grant application process for the CU Next Award, which was created in 2021 to bridge the gap for individual faculty seeking additional resources to innovate courses and programs.
In this case, the CU Next Award provides funding for the establishment of educational modules designed to assist students as they define relevant data, assemble data, evaluate data, map data, publish data and persuade with data—with a particular focus on that last item, Gries says. This data will then be used to explore how climate change is affecting vulnerable Colorado communities.
“We wanted to choose a social issue that was of pressing significance to Colorado,” Gries explains. “We also chose that issue because we have a lot of climate scientists here on campus who are working on that issue.”
As part of the grant, students at CU Boulder and CU Denver will collaborate on a data-advocacy website about climate hazards in Colorado. The content students produce in the courses will take many forms, including text, videos, audio recordings and graphics, all of which will be accessible on a public, University Libraries’ site called CU Scholar.
“We’re going to make the website as interactive as possible,” Gries says. “For instance, to help identify climate risks, we will create geographic maps with filters so people can see how it (climate change) is impacting their communities. We will also create stories from data using audio and video elements.”
Gries says the eight educational modules she and her team are developing for the project will help teachers incorporate them into myriad classes, such as writing and rhetoric, political science, history or data science. And thanks to minimal computing software and open-source tools, Gries says students won’t need special computer-coding skills, and no course prerequisites will be required.
Data Advocacy for All will immediately contribute curricula to multimedia composition and technical communication courses that count toward an English writing, rhetoric and technology major at CU Denver and a new writing and public engagement minor at CU Boulder.
The project’s eight modules will be taught in the fall 2023, spring 2024 and fall 2024 by Nathan Pieplow in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) at CU Boulder and John Tinnell in English at CU Denver. Gries says a diverse advisory board that includes faculty, scientists and community stakeholders will evaluate the modules and could offer helpful suggestions.
Assuming the project lives up to its expectations, Gries says it could be possible to win funding from the Mellon Foundation or other grant sources to provide continued funding beyond 2024.
She says the idea for the project was inspired partly by her own experiences with data advocacy. She is working with a team to create a public-facing website called The Swastika Counter, which offers reliable data about the rise of swastikas on the streets of America and in social media during the Trump administration.
We really want to think about data from a rhetorical, ethical perspective, so that students understand that data is power. We want students to be able to harness that power so that they can advocate in ways that actually have potential to bring about the social change that they are fighting for.
“As I was embarking on this project, I started to think about what a curriculum would look like that actually trains students to identify pressing social matters, to learn how to work with data from the ground up in terms of collecting, organizing, interpreting, communicating, persuading and visualizing” Gries says.
“I was really interested in asking: What would a curriculum look like to prepare students to do this work?”
Other considerations included a desire by fellow grant team members to create a more interdisciplinary curriculum, with a particular focus on data humanities—which is defined as the intersection of the humanities and data science.
CU Boulder team members include David Glimp of English, Nathan Pieplow of PWR and Virginia Iglesias of Earth Lab, while CU Denver colleagues include John Tinnell of English and Cameran Blevins of history. Team members from University Libraries and the Center for Research Data and Digital Scholarship (CRDDS) are Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara, Aditya Ranganath and Thea Lindquist.
Yet another factor was conversations with CU colleagues in the CRDDS and in information science about the need for coursework that can help students communicate with data effectively and persuasively, according to Gries.
“I think the one phase of data-advocacy education that often gets shortchanged is communicating and persuading with data,” she says. “We really want to think about data from a rhetorical, ethical perspective, so that students understand that data is power. We want students to be able to harness that power so that they can advocate in ways that actually have potential to bring about the social change that they are fighting for.”