New programme will provide a unique Internet of Things sensor data experience to primary and secondary pupils

There was a time when learning the 'three R's' – referring, of course, to the competencies of reading, writing and arithmetic – were seen the sole focus of a child's education. While literacy and numeracy still form a core part of the curriculum, modern educationalists and academics are taking a more rounded approach to learning.

One skill that is being recognised as increasingly important is the ability to interpret and analyse data – particularly in a world where 'fake news' is seen as a major issue.

With the amount of data that everyone is expected to process from a plethora of sources, investment and thought is going into how to equip Scotland' s young people with the tools to wade through information to find what's important – and accurate.

Simon Chapple, Head of Data Technology at the University of Edinburgh Information Services Group, is part of a team rolling out a regional IoT sensor network and Datatown online simulator to about 550 schools – both primary and secondary – in six local authorities across the Lothians, Fife and the Borders. The IoT in Schools programme is designed to provide a unique Internet of Things (IoT) sensor data experience to pupils.

A wide variety of real-world interactive scenarios are available to explore, including renewable power generation, traffic pollution and extreme weather events, that are applied to the fictitious, but realistic, Datatown.

The IoT in Schools programme is being funded from the £9.5 million pot received by the university through the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal and is part of the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) programme.

Chapple says: “We're introducing people to data, which is quite an abstract thing, but a very important skills base. We want people from a young age to be critical thinkers and understand data from an evidence point of view. People are bombarded by information and it can be difficult to discriminate facts from non-facts. Being able to handle data is becoming another basic skill and we're trying to make it that commonplace.”

Tommy Lawson, schools technology adviser for Data Education and IoT in Schools, explains that the concept of Datatown was created a couple of years ago when groups of primary six pupils through to S6 learners from Fife, Edinburgh and the Borders were brought together. The Data Education in Schools team ran table-top scenarios with them, such as designing a town, an app, experiencing a data breach and social media exploitation and the Datatown concept was born.

Events, such as thunderstorms, are 'built' on top of the town so learners can see what happens to data before, during and after these scenarios hit. Learners look at such things as rainfall, temperature, humidity, wind speed and air pressure, while they examine the various ways in which the town is being impacted.

Lawson adds: “We have started working on a sustainable energy problem in advance of COP26, looking at how wind, hydro, wave and solar energy supplies are affected and how these technologies can complement each other

“Built into each lesson is the opportunity for interdisciplinary study. For example, rather than remain within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) curriculum, it's perfectly reasonable for the learners to do pieces of extended writing around these events.”

Explaining the technology that is being used in schools, Chapple says it's a radio modulation network, known as LoRaWAN, that is well adopted globally, that runs on low power and can travel a long distance. “The sensors we're installing in schools have batteries in them that can last 10 years, while generating messages every few minutes that can travel more than 25km. They are therefore cost-effective to deploy to establish a regional sensor network across schools.

“We'll be measuring lots of different things in schools, such as the environment, including weather variables, air quality and biodiversity, starting with the bats, the birds and the bees.”

Chapple is keen to point out that this programme has the backing of schools and there is complete anonymity around all the data gathered. “It's not about identifying people as individuals. It's activity and the environment we're monitoring. We've been transparent from the beginning about how this technology works and the steps we've taken to protect everyone's privacy.”

The project is funded to 2027 and there are many benefits of the programme to schools and wider communities, according to Chapple. “There's lots of interest from a research perspective as we're capturing a unique dataset in real time and at a scale which won't have been done before. All of this is data that the school children themselves will have access to, so they can compare their school with others to explore similarities and differences.”

He says the establishment of the network will enable other environmental areas to be explored, such as ecological aspects of rivers, and conversations have taken place with such organisations as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

“It's exciting to have this level of outreach – up to 130,000 pupils across south east Scotland. We're hoping this will inspire many young people to get interested in data and technology,” concludes Chapple.