How JMU students are making state education data useful to the public


From student-teacher ratios to enrollment numbers to demographic statistics, the Virginia Department of Education gathers a lot of data. Collecting the data is fairly routine; making that data useful to people is another story.

"By focusing on a real research problem and using real data sets, we are able to learn new topics and provide tools that can be used for meaningful change in the education system." — David Kegley

Students in Dr. Chris Mayfield's database systems course have been up to the challenge the past two years, participating in the Apps4VA contest to design Web apps that help everyone from lawmakers to the general public get a handle on all those numbers. Mayfield's students have designed and implemented apps that can help parents compare schools and school districts; determine the effect of class size on student success; help researchers and teachers easily analyze the data; and help students figure out what scores they need to achieve on standardized tests to get into college — to name a few.

While the JMU student teams compete against each other for cash prizes, the real reward is putting what they learn in class to the test in the "real world."

"By focusing on a real research problem and using real data sets, we are able to learn new topics and provide tools that can be used for meaningful change in the education system," said David Kegley, part of a team called "Classroom Ratios for Success."

Created by the Virginia Department of Education and the Center for Innovative Technology, Apps4VA challenges the JMU students, and others, to create apps using data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System. The system contains eight years of education data. Mayfield, an assistant professor of computer science, incorporated the Apps4VA competition into the database design course three years ago.

A call for greater transparency in government inspired the creation of the contest, said Carole Ottenheimer, a senior research consultant for the CIT. "We have a system built and data to put in it, but what do you do with it? What's the point of having data if no one knows about or uses it?"

The students work in teams of three to four to design, implement and demonstrate a database management system that uses the VLDS data. This year, students created 28 unique apps. Among them, team "None of the Above" created an app called "Academic Fortune Teller" to inform high school students what chance they have of getting into a particular college based on thir SAT and SOL scores; and team, "Red Swingline Stapler" created an app called "LIONStat" that enables researchers to collect, analyze and compare their data to data in the VLDS.

This year's winner was, Team VEBA (Virginia Educational Budget Analyzer). VEBA users can analyze any Virginia school division's budget, enrollment and test metrics. Comparisons can also be made between divisions for a more enhanced analysis. The second place team, Team DryBump, created an app called "SmartFinance" that enables quick comparisons between instructional spending per capita and academic achievement. The team said the app would be valuable for lawmakers and administrators looking to make good budget decisions about education.

Last year, JMU student Jamie Martin won first place for her app, "Cool School," which compares and ranks schools across Virginia.

"I’ve never had a school project have so many repercussions on the rest of my life and my future," said Martin. "It has come up over and over again in job interviews I’ve had with companies, because it’s just the best finished off example of the kind of work that I can do."

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Published: Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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