Authentic projects, Authentic Motivation

This Monday 8 John Monash Science School year 12 students will present their Computational Science projects from last year as a poster at the Lorne Genome Conference.

These students worked with Dr Sonika Tyagi, the Monash Bioinformatics Platform Manager, to develop software that identifies micro RNA sequences, and works out their likely structure.

They worked in two teams, so that one group worked on the identification, and the other on the structure. They took experimentally verified results and used them to train their software, using machine learning techniques.

Their project was submitted in October, for credit in their year 11 Computing class, but both groups are continuing to work on the software to improve it. They are keen to make the software faster and more accurate. And the key reason that they are still working on it is because it’s not a toy project purely for classroom credit. It’s a real project that has the potential to have an impact in science.

Most of the students in these groups had no background in Biology, but they were keen to learn more about machine learning, so out of the range of projects on offer, they chose this one as an opportunity to learn new skills and produce something useful. In fact one of the students in the project wasn’t even studying Computing. He was just really excited by the opportunity to work on a real and challenging project.

When I was teaching I ran projects like this every year. Not every student produces something that goes on to be used, but every student has the chance to work on real projects, with real data, and real outcomes.

Every year I had students who kept working on their projects long after the subject finishes. Every year the students consistently rated the projects as both the most challenging and the best parts of the course. It was HARD. And they loved it.

This is the beauty of Computing, and of Data Science. Kids can do something real, and have an impact, while they’re still at school. Even Primary Schools can run Data Science projects that have an impact on their local community. I’ll write more about that soon.

Imagine what a difference we could make in the world if all students had opportunities to do real projects and learn Data Science and Computational Skills from the start.

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