#SXSW EDU Recap on Data Education

Preparing Students for a Data-Fueled World

Zarek Drozda
Data Science 4 Everyone
6 min readMar 15, 2023

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6 sessions on data science education. The launch of a national effort for AI education. Many friends and mentors.

One of the largest and most cross-cutting education summits in the U.S., SXSW EDU has become a place for thought leaders, innovators, practitioners, and policymakers to engage with each across the K-12 education landscape — on both current challenges and the up-and-coming.

Preparing students for a new world defined by emerging technology was top of the docket in nearly every conversation.

“Every second we create enough data to fill 50 libraries of Congress… all users need to consume data, communicate data, and use data successfully for workforce and life… we want education to be around skills for democracy and daily life, but also the skills to get that a first job.” — McKenzie Snow, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Education

Between our own team and our many friends & partners in the Data Science 4 Everyone coalition, there was not 1, but 6 sessions on data science & data literacy education — elevating concurrent conversations in policy, philanthropy, the world of work, community-building, teacher preparation, and cross-subject integration.

On the heels of both newly-announced Federal legislation and the newly-released National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine proceedings for data science education in K-12, this year demarked a new level of momentum for data science and literacy education.

Beyond the formal agenda, these topics were central even amidst chatter throughout the convention floor halls. I can’t possibly understate how many times I overhead “data science,” “artificial intelligence,” or “ChatGPT” during informal conversation or when accidentally eavesdropping. Everyone is talking about it. Many are now doing it.

SXSW EDU Workshop on STEAM Education & Data Literacy (3/6/23). 100% of seats were taken.

We saw the strongest interest directly from K-12 educators and practitioners. A special call-out to Kristin Hunter-Thomson and Jennifer Sabourin’s packed professional development workshop on STEAM & data literacy; the room was completely filled, and many were unfortunately turned away due to the overwhelming interest. Both conversations on in-service and pre-service data literacy training carried strong momentum at the summit, identifying actionable ways for teachers to be supported in adapting and teaching new technology — exactly where the focus should be.

“If something is Google-able, that’s the wrong question in a high school math classroom. If you are worried about students cheating with Google, that is the wrong question to ask on a test.” — Lindsey Henderson, Utah State Board of Education

SXSW EDU Panel with Joshua Elder (Siegel Family Endowment), Lindsey Henderson (Utah State Board of Education), Stephanie Melville (San Diego Unified School District) and McKenzie Snow (Commonwealth of Virginia)

From policy, we heard from Deputy Secretary of Education McKenzie Snow on how Virginia became the first state in the country to create dedicated standards for a year-long high school data science course — creating materials, professional training, and recommended scope & sequence from scratch. Our partners at the Utah State Board of Education shared how their approach to technology education is seeding several 21st-century pathways within mathematics education. In San Diego Unified School District, Stephanie Melville shared how their team is spreading data science both above and below high school, via dual-enrollment with local colleges in career & technical education and by building critical early exposure with opportunities starting in middle school, respectively. As policy helps data science education become a new basic, these exemplar programs will serve as models for state and local implementation

“Not everyone needs to be a data scientist, but everyone needs to be data literate. Fortune 500 firms are spending $100Ms of dollars to upscale their employees over the next few years” — Sham Mustafa, CEO Correlation One

Panel discussion at SXSW Edu for “Why are Dollars Going to Data Literacy?”
SXSW EDU Panel with Nancy Lue (Valhalla Foundation), Sham Mustafa (Correlation One), Tanya Beja (AlleyCorp) and Evan Heit (National Science Foundation)

From philanthropy and industry, we heard why these skills were critical both yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Tanya Beja, managing partner of AlleyCorp Social Impact, remarked that “data literacy is a hot and scarce area, and we do not have enough people to fill the slots across sectors.” Correlation One’s CEO Sham Mustafa argued we are in the middle of “a paradigm shift” in how employers view data literacy for their workforce: “It’s not a nice-to-have, enterprises are fearing and embracing change… No one wants to be the Kodak of their era.” Both the private sector and government are making critical early-stage investments in upskilling the American workforce and building national data literacy.

“By the year 2030, we would need 30 million more people who are in the STEM workforce to represent all of America, and have everyone benefit from their talents. We see data science as an opportunity to not create past inequities, and [we] can do something different.” — Evan Heit

SXSW Edu Panel “Data Training in a Web 3.0 Future” stage picture
SXSW EDU Panel with Ronda Železný-Green (data.org), Jennifer Sabourin (SAS Institute), Samantha Leav (Data Science 4 Everyone) and Amanda Mukengeshayi (University of Texas San Antonio)

From the trainers themselves, we heard the importance of diversity and representation in how we build these opportunities, and ensure they are relevant to current technology and the moving target of what a Web 3.0 future may hold. A new report from Data.org projects that 3.5 million data-related jobs will be needed in the social impact sector alone. Data Science 4 Everyone’s new policy director joined an all-women panel to carry this important conversation forward, highlighting efforts from industry, government, and K-12 education to build access to 21st century skill sets, and put them to work for societal betterment.

“Many of our math educators are happy to say data science belongs in math, but they will also say ‘I’m not a stats person, I’m not a data person…’ We need to shift mindsets, big and small, and the teacher pipeline is in dire need of redefinition and investment” — Stephanie Melville

Complementary conversations on computer science, cybersecurity, blockchain, the metaverse, artificial intelligence — including our sponsorship of aiEDU’s national launch — elevated the importance of the role of computing, data, and adaptive technology that every student must be sufficiently prepared for the 21st century.

SXSW Edu Data Science Education Meet Up: Data Science 4 Everyone? How to Move the Needle
Data Science Education Meet-Up @ SXSW EDU 2023

I also continue to hear increasing concern for the “alphabet soup” of emerging technologies. We know school districts are still grappling with teacher shortages, mental health challenges, and intense local politics — let alone the tidal wave of technology that is fundamentally reshaping what our students must learn. It all quickly becomes too much for a system already very overstretched.

National K-12 leaders (our team included) need to do more to identify the common threads of critical content that all students need across core school subjects, in order to make our asks of schools both feasible and timely. We can also do much more to advocate together, so that the U.S. education system has the requisite resources — beyond 2023 — to adapt in a world is that not waiting for American schools to catch up. We owe that much to our students and our teachers.

As we build community, no national summit would be complete without late-night conversations with friends and mentors in the field. I am grateful for continued support from Schmidt Futures, the Siegel Family Endowment team and the Valhalla Foundation that made these conversations possible, and for some great strategy sessions we had during the summit. We were also visited briefly by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (my former boss!), and even had the chance to grab a few BBQ rounds with both the CSTA team and Leigh Ann DeLyser at CS for All — who reminded me of the importance of building trust with a community in times of otherwise fraught politics.

A window has now opened to help K-12 education adapt to the future across subjects and grade-levels. There is so much to do as we ensure it becomes a reality. I look forward to your support and partnership as we empower every student for a data-fueled world.

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Zarek Drozda
Data Science 4 Everyone

Education advocate. Director of Data Science 4 Everyone @ The University of Chicago. Fmr. U.S. Dept of Education. Recent student.