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Undergraduate Policy Students Explore Data Visualization and Gene Editing Research

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Data visualization

The courses taught at the UMD School of Public Policy are often designed to provide students with not only the skills and knowledge needed to tackle policy problems, but also unique strategies and technologies that will be beneficial to them in the future.

When Associate Professor Kathleen Vogel set out to teach this year’s PLCY306 Public Policy Analysis in Action course, she had the goal of giving students marketable skills in policy analysis. At the end of the semester, the students, along with Vogel, co-wrote an article for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the gene editing technology Crispr.

“I decided to have the students focus on one topic and I broke the students up into teams to do a policy analysis of that topic,” Vogel says. “The topic was gene editing, which has gotten a lot of attention over the past year. So I thought this would be an interesting subject for the students to look at and see what the trends are for where this technology is going in different countries around the world.”

Each team of four students was assigned a country. The teams were responsible for doing a country assessment to look at what’s happening with gene editing technology in their country, who the main researchers are in their country and how the trends have changed over time.

“I asked them to essentially gather data from different kinds of sources, some through regular database searching,” Vogel said. “We worked with the UMD Libraries to do some of that. One of the unique aspects of working with the library was discovering that they have folks there who specialize in using different kinds of data analytics and data visualization tools.”

This class taught me that I was capable of doing something when I had limited knowledge on how to do it. It showed me that I have the ability and capacity to work on something and figure it out.
Tomi Adeboyejo

Vogel added that they worked with the School of Public Policy’s librarian liaison Judith Markowitz for the initial database searching to discover what literature about gene editing technology was available to the students.

“From there, we started working with Kelley O’Neal, GIS and spatial data librarian, to use data visualization tools that allow you to visualize the data in ways that would be hard if you’re just looking at an excel sheet,” Vogel said. “These data analytics tools, allow students to create these maps and graphics of what has been happening with the research since 2012.”

In addition to working with UMD Libraries, Vogel also utilized the language skills of SPP graduate students. “I hired some master’s students from the School who are either native language speakers or have high fluency in some of these foreign languages,” she said. “They worked with the undergraduate students to mine foreign languages sources to add to the sources the teams found in English.”

One student in the class, Tomi Adeboyejo, said taking the course was an eye-opening experience. “It was very intensive when it comes to the research we were gathering. It made me realize that conducting research may be something I’m interested in. It’ll be a great stepping stone to have a better understanding on the steps needed to complete research.”

“Before this class, I had never had any experience with those types of visualizations,” Adeboyejo says. “This class taught me that I was capable of doing something when I had limited knowledge on how to do it. It showed me that I have the ability and capacity to work on something and figure it out. It also helped me realize that I have the critical thinking skills and the problem-solving skills to conduct research.”

Adeboyejo, who graduated from UMD in May 2018 with a BA in journalism, said, “Taking this course showed me how broad policy can be. I wasn’t previously exposed to the impact of science in public policy, so it showed me how diverse the field was and the different directions I can go with it.”

Throughout the semester, Vogel focused on helping students see a unique perspective on policy analysis. “The students learned different skills. They used new software tools and data analytics and data visualization tools. I was really excited to give the students that kind of experience that they can now put down on their resume,” Vogel said. She also said she was pleased that the course gave students a real-life sense of what it’s like to work with large amounts of raw data and how to do hands-on research.

Vogel noted that this type of country-to-country analysis on gene editing isn’t being done. “From my perspective, what the students were able to generate was interesting and novel research findings, even to the academic research community because no one is doing this kind of analysis so far.”

You can read the article by Vogel and her PLCY306 students on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website.

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