Big Hero and Big Data in the Classroom

Posted in 2014 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Spoiler Alert:  This post alludes to important plot points of Big Hero 6!
Baymax, the chummy, caretaker robot in Big Hero 6 will go down in merchandising history as a star sidekick who is selfless precisely because he has no self – just source code and a marshmellowy exterior.  Disney can bank on more than a few Baymax pajamas under the tree this year.   However, if STEM education advocates were given a shot to dream up one sensation to get girls and boys equally amped and prepared for a future in science, Baymax would uniquely fit the bill.
Big Hero’s primary audience are kids educated in a data-deluge, technology rich society, and growing up, they will reference Big Hero 6 in two important ways.  First, to remember technology is not apolitical or neutral, and second,to understand that data is not magic.  As such, education tools meant to bolster interest in science and technology fields in the classroom should seize this moment to foster discussion on the humanity behind the technology.
Technology is not apolitical
Big Hero 6 glamorizes “code-ninjas” in the way Disney movies of lore valorize heroes.  But the movie doesn’t shy away from the argument that technology complies with, and propagates the politics of the engineers and businesspeople that fashion them[1].  Baymax is an artifact and the precision of his healing algorithms rests squarely on his original creator who programmed ethical hypotheticals into the machine. This idea should not be lost on STEM education advocates.
Back in June 2008, the National Science Foundation’s Task Force on Cyberlearning issued a report on how to equip students in the United States with STEM skills to be competitive in a 21st century job market.  This was a tall order, but one tactic was to equip students with “algorithmic approaches to problem solving [that] can be taught at a very early age, starting even in kindergarten.”   In a predictive analytics-driven market where only the most convenient and accurate survive, “algorithmic approaches” is sometimes mistaken as a euphemism for “error-free thinking.” Big Hero 6 begins to complicate the notion that deploying code is quick and indisputable in a scene in which teenage protagonist and boy genius, Hiro, intentionally overrides a kill-switch function.  I (unlike some Disney ‘purists’) welcome Disney’s recent forays into character vagaries.  The scene sets up real ethical ambiguities in the industry of automated technology that algorithmic thinking alone cannot decide.
Data is not magic
13-year-old Hiro comes to a critical juncture and needs, as Disney heroes oft do, to seek out his arch-nemesis.  To accomplish this, Hiro makes use of big data; specifically, a complicated, real-time collection and visualization of biodata across San Fransokyo.   This is indicative of a new wave of problem solving and security solutions in society. Federal agencies are no stranger to aggregating biodata – facial recognition technologies being among the latest tool.
Therein is a jumping off point from fiction into a more nuanced introduction to the practice of data science. The National Science Foundation and Google’s charitable arm funded a data visualization platform for middle and high schools students called The iSENSE Project.  The desktop platform and corresponding Android application emulates the experience of connecting data points to real world problems, and then helps teachers guide students to make conjectures based on modeling. For example, multiple classes could use iSENSE to measure and aggregate snowfall levels, geographically tag where they live in a city, and map snowfall ranges over time to talk about climate change. Alternatively, teachers could coordinate ‘heart-rate monitoring projects’ to learn about healthy heart function or better understand how the healthcare industry uses existing stores of healthcare information to plan investments.   To exercise critical thinking in analysis, teachers can ask students questions such as: what trends are generalizable? What in this data is faulty ?  Do we know the story behind this data?  And, what happens when we rely on data points alone?   Conclusions are only helpful if contextualized, and they are quite misleading if any step in the process was improperly executed.  The ensuing conversation allows students to articulate and apprehend the ethical questions that loom ahead.
Granted, Big Hero 6 made big waves two weeks ago at the Box Office, and it may join cinematic history for bringing together the worlds of Disney and Marvel.  But for STEM educators today concerned about their students’ futures, the film’s relevant tropes in the classroom will usher in a welcomed ripple effect.
[1]Winner, L.  “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 19-39. (1986).