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Science Byte puts the crunch into understanding data


12 August 2013

Dr Tara Murphy: "We have more data at our fingertips today than ever before so scientists need to be able to recognise the riches and important scientific discoveries that dwell within those numbers."
Dr Tara Murphy: "We have more data at our fingertips today than ever before so scientists need to be able to recognise the riches and important scientific discoveries that dwell within those numbers."

Zombies, the Fosbury flop and the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks are part of an online approach to training scientists of the future in the essential skill of interpreting data.

Science Byte, kicking off in National Science Week, is an innovative five-week online course created by the University of Sydney. Run as a fun competition, it comes complete with videos, tutor support, learning notes and virtual rewards of stars and badges. While it is aimed at the learning level of Year 10 students, it is suitable for anyone who'd like to test their skills at understanding data.

"Being able to sift through data and understand what matters might sound dry but it is anything but. We have more data at our fingertips today than ever before so scientists need to be able to recognise the riches and important scientific discoveries that dwell within those numbers," said Dr Tara Murphy, from the University's School of Physics and part of the team who developed the course.

"It is also a perfect resource for teachers, many of whom are asked to incorporate lessons about data into their classes without any suitably tailored material."

"Hundreds of students have already registered and provided information about their favourite chocolate bars and science fiction, as part of a mini census which will supply the first data set they will be taught how to crunch."

Week one, a practice run, starts at 9am on Monday 12 August. Prospective students can join the course any time that week. From flu to climate change, the following four weeks hone the participants' skills at analysing data.

Which is where zombies come in.

"Believe it or not, last year a group of scientists from Canada published a paper (PDF, 302kb) on how a zombie attack would spread through the population. Similarly, we consider how the maths of zombies rampaging through an innocent population would be similar to how a flu outbreak would look," said Dr Chris Stewart, another of the course's creators from the School of Physics.

"The Fosbury flop was a new way of undertaking a high jump, introduced to the world in 1968 by Dick Fosbury at the Summer Olympics. It turned all the preceding data on high jumps completely on its head.

"We make a comparison with climate change. To understand how the Fosbury flop changed the high jump you need to look at the world record data over a long time. In just the same way, looking at only a decade of climate data would lead you to draw incorrect conclusions. As for what the 'immortal cancer cells' of Henrietta Lacks can tell us about exponential growth, you'll just have to log on to find out."

Science Byte is developed by the University of Sydney team who created the highly successful National Computer Science School. Undergraduate and postgraduate science and technology students from the University will provide online support for Science Byte participants with any difficulties or curly questions.


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Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 02 9351 4312, 0403 067 342, verity.leatherdale@sydney.edu.au