Leveraging 'Big Data' to Explore Big Ideas: Utilizing the Paleobiology Database to Provide Hands-on Research Opportunities for Undergraduates

Project No.
PI Name
Mark Uhen
George Mason University

Abstract 1

Leveraging 'Big Data' to Explore Big Ideas: Utilizing the Paleobiology Database to Provide Hands-on Research Opportunities for Undergraduates

Presentation Type
Mark D. Uhen and Laura Lukes, George Mason University Christian O. George, High Point University Rowan Lockwood, College of William and Mary Callan Bentley, Northern Virginia Community College Peter Berquist, Thomas Nelson Community College Katherine Ryker, Eastern Michigan University


The research questions we will address include:How do student attitudes and interest toward scientific research change after such an experience? How do these changes (if present) compare to previous research on the
effectiveness of field or lab-based research experiences? How can a large online database such as the PBDB be leveraged as a tool to provide effective research experiences for undergraduate students at 2YC and 4YC? How can databases be leveraged as tools to teach STEM principles to non-majors, majors, and pre-service teachers to help create a STEM literate population?


We are developing a new user interface for the Paleobiology Database (PBDB), to make the database easier to use for students and educators and developing, assessing, and disseminating activities (classroom, lab, and field) that utilize the database and the vast quantity of data it contains.


The project will develop a new PBDB user interface based on survey results and focus group input. We will then assess the new user interface to determine if it meets these user goals via workshops at professional meetings. We will also develop authentic research activities that teach geological, biological, and paleontological concepts using the existing graphical interface, and the new user intface. These activities will also be tested at focus groups at professional meetings, as well as tested with students at 2 and 4 year colleges to deterimine if they are effective at teaching the concepts to students.


The project will determine the:
(1) Applicability of モbig dataヤ science to undergraduate education: This project represents one of the first attempts to use database science to provide research experiences in the classroom. Although textbooks and internet sources frequently cite the results of モbig dataヤ science initiatives, the databases themselves are rarely incorporated into classroom work.
(2) Impact on undergraduate recruitment and attitudes towards science: Our proof-of-concept approach will allow us to directly assess the influence these experiences have on the attitudes of 2YC and 4YC students towards science, in particular women, minorities, and first generation students towards science.
(3) Relevance to a range of undergraduate institutions: By assessing the efficacy of these モbig dataヤ research experiences across a diversity of institutions, from 2YCs to a liberal arts institution to a research university, our research will tackle the question of whether this approach can be broadly disseminated across institution types.
(4) Value for distance learning: Online delivery of entry-level geoscience courses at NOVA and TNCC allows us to compare the implementation of research opportunities in distance learning versus traditional educational settings.
(5) Opportunity to develop programming on scientific controversies: The scope of the PBDB allows us to develop research experiences that delve into some of the most important and controversial scientific issues today, including climate change, evolution and mass extinction.
(6) Focus on transferable skills: Close collaborations between 2YCs and 4YCs (Mason and NOVA, WM and TNCC) makes it possible for us to focus on the development of transferable student skills, including critical thinking, quantitative skills, computing literacy, data manipulation, and the design and interpretation of graphs.

Broader Impacts

The broader impacts of the proposed work extend from K-12 education to informal education to professional paleontological audiences. The development of a new user interface for the PBDB will be exceptionally useful for other audiences, particularly high school and museum educators. As we advertise the availability of the new interface in Fall 2015, we will target a range of education subpopulations via listservs and conference announcements, including NSTA and NAGT. We will also advertise broadly to museum educators, specifically targeting institutions that specialize in natural history. We will approach museum educators at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC) and the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY) to collaborate on the dissemination of PBDB research opportunities via education workshops. In addition to museum educators, we expect the new PBDB interface to generate interest among museum exhibit staffラas they seek data and portals for use in permanent and traveling exhibits. This is an opportune time to reach out to the Smithsonian in this regard as they are currently renovating their paleontology hall and designing interactive exhibits and associated activities. This project will also provide special populations with increased access by providing a low cost research experience that does not require lab space or equipment. As 2Y colleges and distance-based learning initiatives seek research-based alternatives to traditional lab activities, モbig dataヤ may provide the opportunities for hands-on science they seek.

Unexpected Challenges

This project is just beginning, so we have not had any unexpected challenges yet.


None thus far.