Grade 6 students learning to analyze climate data and government spending using Callysto

Jun 6, 2018 · 6 min read

A class of grade six students from Sherwood Park’s Westboro Elementary are among the first to test Callysto, a new and unique online learning tool from Cybera and The Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences (PIMS). The Callysto platform was created to give Canadian students in grades 5-12 access to specialized, curriculum-based learning modules that utilize beginner-level coding and data analysis.

Sherwood Park teacher David Hay introduced this technology to his class in September 2017. Hay was looking for a way to elevate his lesson plans and easily introduce students to computational thinking, and the online learning tool provided an interactive, user-friendly and flexible way to get started offering a sort of interactive textbook.

Last week, I stopped by the school to talk to the staff and students about their learning experience with Callysto so far.

Hay’s students are using Callysto’s interactive data processing and visualization tools in their math, social studies, and science classes to do everything from learning basic code, to graphing and analyzing government expenditures and climate change using a number of open data sources.

“One way we are using Callysto is to analyze climate change through open data,” says Hay. “We collect temperature data from the last 150 years or so from NASA’s repository, and then we graph that to show what is happening to the temperature trends over time. Then we compare it to the last 60 years of temperature data that are available on Canada’s Open Data Portal, and, again, the graph shows the changes over time.”

“It is so easy for students to use,” he adds. “Basically, you can give them a link that pulls repositories from GitHub, and then they sign in with their Google account, or whatever credentials it is set up for. The fact that we do not have to worry about hosting the technology or anything like that is great.”

The Callysto platform, which is accessible through any internet connection, contains interactive learning modules that have been developed by Cybera and PIMS to be subject-specific. Using these modules, students can perform a number of tasks, from basic math equations to analyzing open data through interactive graphs, such as the one pictured.

Callysto leverages Jupyter, a powerful, web-based computing platform originally developed for universities and researchers to share their analyses, but now frequently used as an interactive textbook in post-secondary classrooms. A major benefit to the Jupyter framework is how it utilizes a vast amount of expertise and open data from around the world. Students are able to connect their assignments, or notebooks, to live, up-to-date open data produced by organizations and institutions, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the City of Edmonton, and the Government of Canada.

“Real scientists, mathematicians and sociologist are using Jupyter notebooks in their work, but it is also simple enough for an 11-year-old, or even younger, to use, so I think that is a big advantage,” says Hay.

Another advantage of the Callysto platform is that it is free. It costs nothing for teachers to host the Callysto platform and integrate it into their lesson plans, and the training to use it is also free. There is also no need to download individual and expensive software. Instead, Callysto’s learning modules can be easily accessed by teachers and students from any location, through nearly any device with an internet connection.

“A student could pull out his or her iPhone and use Callysto on it,” says Hay. “It also works fine on my Linux laptop here, or on the students’ Chromebooks across the hall.”

Hay’s students agree that the flexibility of the technology is helping to improve their learning experience.

“It is neat that, if you started work in one place, but later you cannot get to that place, you can sign in anywhere,” says grade six student Deniah.

“I like Callysto, because it is easy to use,” adds Vijay, another one of Hay’s students. “It has already collected random information for us to use. For example, you can program it so it rolls a dice or flips a coin, and the results will be random each time. We do not actually have to flip a coin or roll a dice over and over again.”

Knowing how to access open data and perform big data processing, visualizations, digital math equations and text formatting is invaluable for today’s youth as they grow into future digital leaders.

“What we are finding is not that jobs are requiring coding skills specifically, but that they require computational thinking,” says Hay. “Knowing how to ask computers the right questions and knowing how to set up basic code, like a loop (running an action over and over), or store something in a variable, are important, and more and more jobs are requiring that skill. Being able to do a lot of this with code will help these students better market themselves in terms of getting a job in the future.”

Another example of a Callysto module that is helping students strengthen their computational thinking, and something they are working on in Hay’s class, is the ”˜turtle’ program. The turtle module is a block coding program that challenges young students to think about problem solving through step-by-step computational tasks.

“Right now I’m working on some turtles,” says Gabe, a grade six student. “There is a bunch of different commands you can do to make turtles work. You can tell them when to turn and how many degrees, or how far to go forwards or backwards. It’s fun.”

Westboro Elementary’s principal agrees that it is important for students to strengthen their digital skills and computational thinking. He notes that the education curriculum in Alberta is evolving, and will likely adopt more technology-enhancing programs like Callysto.

“The world, and advancements with computer technology, are changing so fast, and online industries are becoming more and more prevalent, so anything that relates to knowing how to access information and make use of it is going to be important,” says Mike Lastiwka. “Having this knowledge and these skills will help students to become lifelong learners and make the right choices about what kind of career paths to follow.”

“It is important for us to learn these skills because in the future, there might not be many jobs,” says Vijay. “You might need to use programming, and if you learn these things now you will know for later when robots are doing things.”

Watch our blog for more feedback from other schools having fun learning with Callysto.