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Getting the Right Environmental Data into the Classroom

By Heather Flanagan
March 6, 2017

BOP students do hands-on environmental monitoring of their Oyster Restoration Stations at least four times a year.  But what do you do with that data once you have it?

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Students from P.S. 371 conduct environmental monitoring in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

This February, public school teachers from all over New York City attended our professional development, “Data Analysis for Teachers, Part 1: Getting the right environmental data in the classroom” with Columbia University professors Bob Newtown and Matt Palmer.  (There are still spots for Part 2 on 3/21- sign up here!)  Bob explained that in designing BOP’s Oyster Restoration Station Protocols, “we wanted to give kids the tools to do the full survey of the environment.”  By collecting data for a number of different water quality parameters, students have the opportunity to conduct a huge range of scientific investigations depending on what piques the class’ interest.

We’ve compiled Bob and Matt’s tips for making sense of all this data here- let us know if we missed anything!  You can share your tips with us on the BOP-CCERS Tumblr here.

Download the data into a single spreadsheet.
Bob recommends starting by downloading all the data you want to look at into a single spreadsheet vs. looking at the data on the BOP Digital Platform.  Matt seconded the idea, asking teachers to first consider “What’s my universe of data?”  If you want to explore dissolved oxygen (DO), for example, Bob suggests you download all of the DO data available on the platform into Excel.  By working in a spreadsheet, you can look at the whole range of DO data to get the big picture, and then delete the rows and columns you don’t need as you zero in.  We put together a student-friendly guide to downloading and working with BOP Digital Platform Data in Excel- you can check it out here.


Find some Google-able data to make a quick comparison.

If you’re wondering what a “healthy” range of dissolved oxygen is for a waterway, it’s okay to start by googling or checking on Wikipedia!  It’ll give you a quick sense of whether the numbers you see are close or way off, possibly signaling a user error.


Check the method and units.
Dissolved oxygen can be measured multiple ways and expressed in multiple units, and this is the case for other water quality parameters as well.  When you compare your class’ data to other groups on the BOP Digital Platform, check to see what method and unit they used.  For example, “2.5% saturation” and “7.0 mg/L” are both valid results, but they can’t be compared directly.


Check for errors.
The quality checking of data on the platform is done by the students and teachers participating in the project, so sometimes mistakes slip through!  If you’re seeing a range of 6 to 10 mg/L and one value of 120 mg/L, look at it with a critical eye.


Relate the data to “the broader universe” of other water quality resources.
There are a number of publicly available datasets on water quality, tidal conditions, and indicators of biotic health from agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.  Bob shared an annotated list of these resources with the group- check them out below!


Reach out to Bob and Matt for help!
As a part of the Billion Oyster Project Curriculum and Community Enterprise for Restoration Science, Bob and Matt are here to support BOP teachers, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!


Bob’s Annotated List of Data Sources:

–Jamaica Bay Water Quality Database: http://www.ciesin.columbia.edu/jbwq/ (or, if that doesn’t work: http://beta.ciesin.columbia.edu/jbwq/)

There’s a link in the upper left to download the whole dataset for analysis in Excel. Or, pick sites on the map and follow the links in the popup to download or plot whichever variables you want. You can plot time series, or plot scatter plots (one variable against the other), and also download data from individual stations.

Data includes many of the variables monitored at the BOP Restoration Stations.

–Jamaica Bay historical maps: http://nbii-nin.ciesin.columbia.edu/jamaicabay/jb_hist_maps.jsp

–Jamaica Bay background information: www.ciesin.org/jamaicabay/stakeholder/LegacyofJB_110503_NPS.pdf

–More Jamaica Bay background: http://www.ciesin.org/jamaicabay/stakeholder/city_dep.jsp

–New York Harbor Water Quality reports (2004 – 2012): http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/harborwater/harborwater_quality_survey.shtml

–Stevens Institute, New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS): http://hudson.dl.stevens-tec.edu/maritimeforecast/

The underlying technology here is a detailed model of the NY Harbor regional water currents. Since it is model based, the coverage is complete and available on an hourly basis from 2006 through the end of 2017. In addition to currents: Air temperature, humidity, dw point, air pressure, rainfall and winds throughout the NY Harbor region. Water variables from the HRECOS stations. Coverage can be spotty, but the Piermont Pier is a good example and is sending data currently. Includes: acidity, dissolved oxygen, salinity, currents, water level, etc.

The site includes access to “GNOME”, a NOAA tool that lets you put in a “tracer” (representing a pollutant for example) and use the Stevens currents to see where it goes when. A bit advanced, but pretty cool.

Also: flood forecasts, along with time series of plots of sea level (both modeled and observed).

–NYC tide charts, from approx.. January, 2014 through December, 2017: http://ny.usharbors.com/new-york-tide-charts

–Climate data, mostly by meteorological station or ocean observing site:  https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/
NOAA’s climate data home page. Many different types of data, much of it by site. Too much to list, but an excellent place to find and download time series of basic climate variables, by site, state, or region. Nearly all data can be downloaded as .csv (comma-separated values) files for Excel.

–Climatology, including min/mean/max:  https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/datatools/normals

–OASIS: NYC data in map format: http://www.oasisnyc.net/map.aspx
Map-based tool for looking up a lot of NYC data: parks, sewage treatment plants, drainage areas, water access points, etc. etc.

–The River Project: http://www.riverprojectnyc.org/riverdive_today.php
Not a lot of data – but cool educational pages on the Hudson River and all things living in it.

–USGS Water Resources:

*Front page for USGS water resources: https://www2.usgs.gov/water/
*Starting point for data searches. Mostly map-based. https://water.usgs.gov/data/

*Water quality data from around the US: https://waterwatch.usgs.gov/wqwatch

Accessed through a map interface. Includes things like: temperature, salinity (conductivity), pH, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, nitrate, chlorophyll, etc. Go from the national map to state … select a site … scroll all the way down to see the graphs. Retrieve data as “tab separated” to cut/paste into Excel.