Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Diverse student projects illuminate the power of data analytics

Consortium’s Earth data science corps brings new perspectives to studies of birds, water, Indigenous lands

landscape of southern South Dakota
Southern South Dakota, where several student groups used sophisticated Earth data analytics techniques to better understand changing landscapes
- Google

Audience members smiled when a newly minted data scientist admitted she’d wanted to study the piping plover partly because the Northern Great Plains birds are so adorable (but mostly because they are a threatened species). Audience members listened silently when another team described how the data they uncovered proved to be extremely emotional for some students and their families.

Eighteen Earth science data interns from diverse backgrounds spent last summer in an immersive summer internship guided by experts from CU Boulder, Oglala Lakota College, United Tribes Technical College, Metro State University Denver, and Earth Lab, part of CIRES at CU Boulder. The NSF-funded Earth Data Science Corps (EDSC) program, which just finished its third and final year, aimed to help build a next-generation big data workforce that’s more diverse than yesterday’s. This year’s student and instructor participants were primarily from Tribal colleges and schools serving historically underrepresented groups, including Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota. Teams learned to direct powerful Earth data analytics on questions that matter to them and their communities.

“I didn’t even know what data science was a few years ago, and none of us knew Python,” admitted Jim Sanovia, ESIIL Tribal Resilience Data Scientist, who has served as a research team leader in EDSC since its inception. “Now it’s being embedded in Indian Country, and we’re getting fast-forwarded into the data revolution.”

Elisha Yellow Thunder, a third-year “advanced intern” (or AI, to her delight) is a graduate student at South Dakota State University and a third-year participant in EDSC. Guided by Sanovia, she worked with Google Earth Engine, Python, and other technologies to interpret historic landscapes in her community. Celeste Terry, a junior at MSU Denver who is crafting her own major in applied Indigenous law and science, was a first-time ESDC member, and is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Although she had extensive coding experience already, Terry had never used many of the analytical techniques she learned as part of the ESDC cohort. "To then apply what we had learned to address varying unmapped geological challenges facing our tribal communities and actually have the tools to accomplish that. ... was really amazing,” she said.

“This is the dream of Indigenous scientists,” Yellow Thunder said: “It’s to take this kind of result to our Elders and be able to say ‘Look what we did. Where do you want us to take this now?’” 

Student Lola Hagmoc-Johnson was part of the Metro State University Denver team, which dug into the relationships between Colorado mountain precipitation, regional rainfall, and Denver’s water supply. The goal was to better understand how climate change may affect water availability in the region’s future, and the team’s overall conclusion was sobering: “Water is going to be harder to predict…with climate change,” Hagmoc-Johnson said. 

The students talked about developing their own interests during the summer. One loved the process of developing a basic forecasting model from observations, and then figuring out how to validate and understand model results. Another loved Python packages that automate data processing and make it possible to quickly duplicate work done in one location to another, by writing and using modular code—a way to help other Tribes, perhaps, begin bringing in Earth data science techniques. One of Sanovia’s former students, Justina White Eyes, parlayed her passion for Earth data analysis into a summer job with NASA Goddard, working on a mountain snow and hydrology project that also involves CU Boulder researchers. She hopes to continue her education as a graduate student here someday soon.

CIRES/Earth Lab scientist Nathan Quarderer co-led the ESDC program, including analysis of student skill sets and mindsets before and after. “We've been able to demonstrate significant growth in participants' Python, and data science skills, as well as their science identity and sense of belonging to a larger community of scientists,” Quarderer said. “It's been really inspiring to see how far they are able to come in a short amount of time.”

CIRES Fellow Jennifer Balch, who co-led the ESDC program and will continue it under a new banner next year, said she firmly believes in the power of data to promote justice, as well as empower decisions. “We know our environment is changing, and there are solutions in data,” she said, “opportunities to generate more insight that can help us learn to live more sustainably and more equitably.” 

In spring 2023, the ESIIL Stars program will carry on ESDC’s legacy, supporting students from schools that are historically underrepresented in STEM through data science skills training and project-based learning.

More on the web from some of the research teams:

CU Boulder




Metro State University Denver




United Tribes Technical College




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