Helping students hear the stories that data tell

Article Highlights

High school students work with a Data Nuggets module.
High school students work with a Data Nuggets module. Credit: Paul Strode
  • Michigan State University’s Data Nuggets program is starting its third round of funding from the National Science Foundation to improve data literacy in K-16 students.
  • The program, operated by the Kellogg Biological Station, also introduces real STEM professionals through storytelling, helping students better relate to their projects and engage more deeply with the program’s content.
  • In collaboration with Auburn University, the newest NSF grant will help Data Nuggets further that engagement and introduce students to a greater diversity of scientists.

A data literacy program that’s also changing students’ relationships with science and scientists is entering its third round of funding with a new $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

In collaboration with Auburn University, the Data Nuggets program at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, or KBS, will work to identify factors that improve equity and success in undergraduate STEM education.

Launched by Michigan State University in 2011, Data Nuggets is a curriculum development project designed to help students better understand and use data. The program shows how professionals in science, technology, engineering and math really work with data by sharing their stories, which also enables students to relate on a much more personal level.  

Data Nuggets challenges students from kindergarten through undergraduate levels to answer scientific questions using data to support their claims. The questions and data originate from real research provided by scientists whose studies range from physics to ecology to animal behavior. 

To add the personal element, Data Nuggets is collaborating with Project Biodiversify — another education program started at MSU — to add the scientists’ bios, which include information like hobbies and their lives outside of science. This helps students relate to the researchers and see them less as strangers in lab coats and more as scientific role models. 

“We’ve found that it’s the scientists that are engaging students in the activities,” said Elizabeth Schultheis, co-leader of the Data Nuggets program. “If they connect to the role model, then you can get students to do the data literacy activities because they know, ‘Oh, this is a real person. I relate to this person. And I’m working with authentic, real data. I’m not just doing busy work.’” 

Schultheis, who earned her doctorate in plant biology from MSU, is also the education and outreach coordinator for the Long-Term Ecological Research, or LTER, program at KBS, which supports Data Nuggets. Schultheis and co-leader, Melissa Kjelvik, developed and run the program, forming partnerships to research and fund the program.

“With our current research, we’re trying to figure out what is the special thing that’s really resonating with students in terms of the role models,” Kjelvik said.

“Our research will investigate how and why role models are critically important for students,” said Cissy Ballen. Ballen is an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn, the lead institution on the NSF grant, which builds on the past success of Data Nuggets and will help ensure its future impact.

“The theory behind this is that students must be able to see a scientist’s success as attainable to relate to that scientist,” Ballen said. “My prediction is that students will find success most relatable when they see some scientists, like them, have struggled with science, but then were able to overcome that struggle.” 

Elizabeth Schultheis (right) and Melissa Kjelvik (left) lead the Data Nuggets program at Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.
Elizabeth Schultheis (right) and Melissa Kjelvik (left) lead the Data Nuggets program at Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

Making data talk

Many students’ eyes gloss over when they hear terms like “data” or “science.” 

Even Schultheis admits she didn’t appreciate the significance of data until she was a grad student collecting her own. The problem, she said, is that kids are often taught how to make a graph, for example, but not why.

“I never really learned to care until I understood the reason I make a graph is because I want to answer a question,” Schultheis explained. “I need to see the data, what it looks like. And that’s why I make a graph.” 

Data Nuggets doesn’t change the skills that are taught in conventional curricula. Students still learn how to make and label axes, for example, and then how to plot data to create graphs. But they also get a more immersive introduction into why real people use these skills.

“Our purpose with these Data Nuggets modules is that everything is always given real context and always in service of a scientific question,” Schultheis said. “It’s always: Here’s a scientist. Here’s the question that they really care about and the reason they collected this data is because they want to answer this question. And you make the graph to visualize it so that you can see what the data is telling you.”

Data Nugget activities come in four levels, so instructors can use the ones best suited for their specific classes. Level 4 activities are designed for high schoolers and undergraduates, while level 1 activities are appropriate for elementary schools and higher grades looking for a refresher after a summer break, for example.

Teachers also have flexibility with how to present an activity based on their goals. For example, instructors can choose activities with completed graphs so students can focus on interpreting what they see to answer questions.

Or students can be given blank grids to give them experience in creating useful representations of data from scratch.

Connie High, a science teacher at Delton Kellogg High School about five miles from KBS, calls Data Nuggets “a game changer.”  

She said that her students, when they’re new to Data Nuggets, can usually make claims and find supporting evidence. The challenge is learning how to articulate the connection between the two.

“They really struggle with how to link claim, evidence and reasoning. They tend to just restate the evidence again,” High said. 

“With Data Nuggets, we definitely see an improvement from the beginning of the year to the end.” 

Humanizing data 

The Data Nuggets program started 13 years ago as a grassroots collaboration between KBS researchers — including Schultheis and Kjelvik, who were then grad students at KBS — and K-12 teachers, including High. 

More than 120 scientists have contributed more than 120 data literacy activities since then. Tens of thousands of people regularly use the Data Nuggets website. Links to various Data Nuggets stories can even be found in science textbooks. 

“Long-term relationship building is why we got such good insights from teachers about what their students needed, because they already had trust with us, and we went into their classrooms and learned from them,” Schultheis said. “And building relationships with scientists who trust us to tell their stories correctly, who are giving their own stories for students to read and learn about, continues to be critical to our success.”

But exactly how to best package and present the data stories falls to Schultheis and her colleagues. Previous research has supported the idea that focusing on the scientist and why they collected the data is essential. After all, data is just numbers. It’s human interaction that puts numbers in perspective, gives the scientific question context and engages students in the activity.

“Humanizing the data is at the crux of this work,” Ballen said. “Data Nuggets is such a successful resource because of the way they humanize the data component and contextualize it within the science itself and show that it’s being done by relatable scientists. They do that really well.”

With its third round of NSF funding, Data Nuggets is attempting to fine-tune how to best present the scientist role models and the stories to improve student engagement with science even more.

The goal is not only to increase the portrayal of under-represented groups among scientist contributors, but also for students to see that they share some things in common with the scientists they see. 

“We used to ask students to draw what a scientist looks like, and they all would draw someone who looks like Albert Einstein,” High said. “It’s incredibly important that they see there are scientists who look like them.”

“You can imagine if you were a student sitting in a classroom you might get an activity that features a scientist from a prestigious university with awards and that sort of thing, and that might not be very relatable,” Ballen said. “Success might not be perceived as attainable.”

Data Nuggets is working to combat that perception.

For example, there’s a Data Nugget called “Trees and the City”, featuring a photo of a smiling University of Minnesota ecologist named Adrienne Keller wearing a bike helmet and sunglasses. A video shows Keller riding her bike through neighborhoods in the Twin Cities as she describes her interest in tree patterns. She poses her dataset’s main question: “Are there differences in the total canopy cover or the number of tree species planted in a neighborhood based on residents’ income level or percentage of BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, and People of Color — residents?”

Another Data Nugget was written by a community scientist from Bayfield, Wisconsin, located on the south shore of Lake Superior. He’s pictured wearing shorts and gym shoes as he stands on ice. 

For his Nugget, he used historical data to answer his question if the winters were getting shorter and changing the dynamics of how people could travel in the area. 

He also happened to be a high school student.

“That’s the dream outcome,” Schultheis said, “that students realize how powerful data are, and they can be advocates for themselves and their communities because they can actually go to the source of information and ask and answer questions.” 

This story was written by Lynn Waldsmith, and was originally posted on the Michigan State University, College of Natural Science website here.

Auburn and MSU collaborate on NSF IUSE grant to determine what makes an effective scientific role model

Members of the Auburn and MSU research team sharing a meal.

Scientific role models increase student success in their science courses as well as inspire students to pursue science careers. The Ballen Lab at Auburn University has completed significant research demonstrating that role models with diverse identities are lacking in undergraduate biology classrooms. Students with identities that are not represented in their undergraduate science courses do not have many opportunities to see themselves in science careers and as scientific leaders.

“I am excited to collaborate with researchers at Michigan State University to identify factors that improve equity and success in undergraduate STEM education. Our research will investigate how and why role models are critically important for students,” said Cissy Ballen, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

The collaborative team, led by Ballen at Auburn and Elizabeth Schultheis at MSU, was awarded $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

Robin Costello, a postdoctoral scientist in the Ballen Lab working to understand the relationship between role models and successful student outcomes, explained, “Featuring relatable scientist role models in classroom materials is a low-cost and accessible way to increase the recruitment and persistence of students with identities historically and currently excluded from STEM.”

The research team’s recent research showed a direct correlation between relating to scientific role models and student engagement. “These results led to more questions about the critical features of scientist role models that make them effective and served as the foundation for the recently awarded project,” Ballen explained. “Theory makes several predictions about why and how role models are critical to student success. With this support from NSF, we will conduct critical research that tests theory on what makes an effective role model.”

Costello added, “Our research will specifically explore how to tell scientists role model stories in ways that improve student outcomes.” The project is entitled “Collaborative Research: Sharing Scientist Role Model Stories to Improve Equity and Success in Undergraduate STEM Education.”

“Several popular resources have been created to combat the pervasiveness of the stereotypical scientist in biology and STEM curricular materials,” Ballen added. An important long-term result of the project are free, open-source materials for educators to use in their classrooms to nurture more inclusive environments where students can learn from a wide array of STEM leaders to whom they can relate.

These resources will develop biology data literacy curricular materials that teach quantitative skills while simultaneously highlighting the diversity of scientists in STEM. These resources will be based on two well-known educational resources: Data Nuggets, resources that are developed in a partnership between scientists and teachers, and Project Biodiversify, a site that offers education tools for diversity and inclusion in biology classrooms.

Our team will be recruiting instructors to implement the activities in classrooms. If you are interested in participating in this project, please contact For the original story, written by Maria Gebhardt, visit the Auburn page here.

Data Nuggets researchers lead collaborative study examining representation in STEM curriculum

Melissa and Liz presenting Data Nuggets.
Melissa (left) and Liz (right) presenting Data Nuggets at the LTER All Scientists Meeting.

When you were a child, what was your image of a scientist? Could you imagine yourself in those shoes?

A new, National Science Foundation-funded study led by Michigan State University researchers and others aims to better understand how science instruction that contains diverse scientist role models affects student attitudes about science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—courses and careers. 

Data Nuggets, a project that has created free STEM classroom activities since 2011, is integral to the new study. Data Nuggets was founded by postdoctoral researchers Elizabeth Schultheis and Melissa Kjelvik, both of whom conducted doctoral research at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. The Data Nuggets activities were co-developed through collaborations between scientists and K-16 educators.

MSU ecologist Marjorie Weber will lead the study. Other members of the research team include Schultheis and Kjelvik, and Cissy Ballen and Ash Zemenick of Auburn University.

Post originally from Kellogg Biological Station.

Teacher Feature – Karen Murphy

Our first Teacher Feature is by Karen Murphy, who recently used one of our new Data Nuggets by the Harvard Forest LTER with her ecology students. Karen a high school science and special education teacher at Summit Academy, a public day school in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

I was able to use A window into a tree’s world Data Nugget with my ecology class as part of a unit on the carbon cycle. I found that students were interested in the relationship between tree rings and temperature/climate. They appreciated the idea of being able to determine past climate and tree age using tree rings. I asked one student for specific feedback and she said that the assignment was “interactive, informative, and fun.”

This Data Nugget provided students with access to a current, real example of the scientific method in action. For example, the class was able to practice identifying the independent and dependent variables, graph and analyze data, and to build on this knowledge to creatively form their own questions for further research. 

I greatly appreciate the Teacher Guide and PowerPoint that were found on the web page. There is a lot of valuable information to share with the class, including instructional material on the science of climate change and sources of evidence. I now hope to incorporate more Data Nuggets into future classes.

NABT 2019 – BEACON Evolution Symposium

In this workshop, we will share strategies for using Data Nuggets in the classroom and introduce one that features microsatellite data for various populations of striped bass. This Data Nugget will give students an opportunity to explore genetic markers and how they can be used to inform the management of an important sport fishery by deciphering which spawning grounds the fish were born in.

The materials from the Data Nugget workshop are as follows:

Workshop organized and presented by: Megan Phifer-Rixey, Chelsea Barreto, Carleigh Engstrom, Elizabeth SchultheisMelissa Kjelvik, and Louise Mead. For more information on the NABT 2019 conference, check out their website, here.


Digital Data Nuggets on DataClassroom!

We are so excited to announce that we have partnered with our friends at DataClassroom to create new “Digital Data Nuggets“! These activities allow your students to easily make beautiful graphs, develop their data literacy abilities, do statistics, and play with data visuals for free in the DataClassroom tool. Although offers some paid features, Digital Data Nuggets will always be available with their free version. Once you are logged in to DataClassroom, look for the Data Nuggets “DN” logo in the list of datasets.

Click here to register a free password at DataClassoom.

Click here for a quick tutorial on making graphs with DataClassroom.

DataClassroom was created by our good friend, Aaron Reedy, a former high school teacher and evolutionary biologist. He developed them as the digital data-tool that he always wished he had when he was teaching in his Chicago Public School classroom. In addition to exploring the Data Nugget datasets, DataClassroom lets students upload their own data, easily create graphs, and even conduct animated chi-square or t-tests when they are ready to move up to null hypothesis testing. Aaron is willing to demo the full DataClassroom tool for any interested teacher or school. You can directly send questions, feedback, or a request for a demo to Aaron at

Leave a comment below to let us know what you think about Digital Data Nuggets!

Presenting at the KBS K-12 Partnership Spring Workshop

It was standing room only as Marcia Angle and Liz Schultheis presented Data Nuggets at the Kellogg Biological Station K-12 Partnership Spring Workshop. The theme of the workshop was “Data, Data, Everywhere!” so it was a great fit!

We designed this session for Data Nugget “newbies” and gave a quick background on our activities, paired with a tour through the website. We then went through one of our newest Data Nuggets, “Bringing back the Trumpeter Swan” and all the cool potential extensions that can be done with this activity.

For all the materials presented in the session, check out the links below!

NABT 2018 – BEACON Evolution Symposium

Want to learn more about cutting-edge evolution research? Looking for a way to bring more data into your classroom? If so, come check out the Evolution Symposium: Emerging Research in Evolutionary Biology at this year’s National Association of Biology Teachers Conference! This year’s symposium will begin with a talk by Dr. Caroline Williams, an evolutionary biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, whose lab studies the question, how do variable environments drive the evolution of metabolic physiology in ectotherms? Climate change research historically focused on summer, and winter climate change was considered mostly beneficial due to amelioration of damaging cold. Her research is shifting this paradigm, and illustrating how variation in winter conditions drive responses of terrestrial organisms to climate change. The talk will be followed by a hands-on workshop, led by Nikki Chambers; Dr. Elizabeth Schultheis; and Dr. Melissa Kjelvik, where participants will go through a Data Nugget activity that can be used to help bring this data back to their classrooms.

The materials from the Data Nugget workshop are as follows:

Workshop organized and presented by: Caroline Williams, Nikki Chambers, Elizabeth Schultheis, Melissa Kjelvik, and Louise Mead. For more information on the NABT 2018 conference, check out their website, here.


Data Nuggets on social media!

If you’re not following Data Nuggets on social media yet, you should! We have four great ways to keep up to date about the newest Data Nuggets released and when we add new features:

First, follow us on Twitter @Data_Nuggets. We post new Data Nuggets, cool articles, and supplemental materials that can be used to dive deeper into the research in our activities.

Next, like our page on Facebook and join the new Data Nuggets group. We created this group as a space for teachers, professors, and all educators to discuss Data Nuggets and their experiences using them. Have a new innovative way that you modified a lesson and made it your own? Need suggestions for activities that can be used to teach a particular math or science concept?

Finally, you can follow our new Instagram account Data_Nuggets where we share cool images that come in from scientists when they create their Data Nuggets and photos from our conferences and workshops. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel where we share scientists’ videos. These are two great places to search for inspiration, or to use to connect more with the people behind the data.

Thanks! Melissa and Liz

Finding the Data Nugget You Need by Math and Science Content

Not sure which Data Nugget to use next? With over 60 activities to choose from, sometimes it’s difficult to find time to read though all the descriptions and pick one that will fit your needs. From your feedback we’ve learned that you’d like to search by key science and math content within each activity. In response we created a searchable table on our website (under the “Current Data Nuggets” tab on our homepage) that will hopefully help you find the Data Nuggets that best suit your needs!

This table allows you to pick from the 60+ activities we’ve co-developed with scientists and search by the following criteria:

  • Content readability level (Flesch-Kincaid reading grade)
  • Science concepts / keywords
  • Quantitative concepts / statistics
  • Type of graph used in the activity
  • Type of variable (categorical, continuous)
  • Type of data source (raw, summarized), including a note when the full large data set is available when requested

In addition to this table, we have a few other ways you can search for Data Nuggets on our website. Other criteria you can search for include: activity summary and study location (“View in searchable table”), study area (“View on map”), and by scientist (“Meet the scientists!”). Our next step will be to include links to the key NGSS core ideas and scientific and engineering practices, so be on the lookout for that in the near future!

Written by May Lee, Data Nugget Researcher