April 15, 2021
Carnegie Mellon University
As a set of practices and principles, research data management (hereafter RDM) refers to the appropriate organization, description, naming, and storage of data throughout a research project. RDM is becoming increasingly important as funding agencies, publishers, and other entities continue to call for open data and data sharing in research. For research taking place on college and university campuses, many academic libraries have stepped up to provide education on implementing RDM techniques into research workflows. As an RDM Consultant at Carnegie Mellon University Libraries in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, I’m always looking for ways to make RDM instruction more engaging, accessible, and even fun for learners. Having come to academic librarianship from a different career path and finding myself learning from scratch how to be a data management educator, I initially felt like RDM concepts were introduced to me through a lens of compliance (i.e., you have to do this, or you should do this, and if you don’t, you’re a bad researcher!), and as a result, it made many of these early learning experiences around data management less fun and engaging for me. Part of this might just be my personality, but when something is presented to me as something that I should or have to do, I generally feel less excited about doing it. I didn’t want other learners sitting in my RDM workshops feeling the same way, especially considering how important this material is. As someone with a background teaching and researching popular culture, I made it my mission to develop some fun, engaging methods for teaching RDM through a popular culture lens. In this editorial, I’m excited to present a case study of using Pokémon to teach how to write detailed, reproducible documentation for research data in a project.
Data Management is Hard
Before I describe my case study, I wanted to talk a bit about my positionality, and why this topic is important to me. I remember going through graduate school and juggling what felt like 50 things all at once – my dissertation, my teaching, going to conferences, departmental service, working at another job that helped pay the bills, and trying to have some semblance of a personal life. Needless to say, when I was collecting and analyzing data for my dissertation, I was not thinking about data management. I never thought about documenting my workflows, creating codebooks, or using consistent file naming schemes. In many ways, that data is now unusable unless I wanted to spend hours (days, even) trying to make sense of the file structure and variables. Once I learned about RDM, I was able to retroactively look at the techniques I used as a graduate student in my research and come to terms with how poorly I managed that research data! I share this story because, in my current role, I often have honest conversations with my campus researchers who feel overwhelmed by the idea of implementing all the “best practices” of RDM into their research workflow and feeling burdened by the amount of time it will add to their plate. I completely get it. Even though RDM techniques often save you time in the long run, it can be hard to find the time to implement them during a research project. Having this positionality, when I started my current role, I knew I wanted to find ways to help empower researchers to use RDM techniques and even potentially have fun learning these techniques, which may make them more likely to stick with them in their research process. One of the RDM techniques I love teaching is documentation of research data. Writing down each step you take in your research process is incredibly beneficial not only for yourself but anyone else who may want to reuse your data in the future! Trying to support enthusiasm around writing documentation is difficult, so I began teaching documentation of research data processes through a popular culture lens in order to bring more levity and fun to the learning experience.
“The Pokémon has four arms, big muscles, and looks like they want to fight”
As a lifelong Pokémon fan, I’m always looking for ways I can bring the franchise into my current work. When I was looking for a way to create a more engaging learning environment around teaching documentation for research data, I thought about how Pokémon might be useful in this situation. Accordingly, I decided to create an activity for my RDM workshops that blends Pokémon with learning proper research data documentation techniques.
In this activity, learners are directed to go to Bulbapedia, an online Pokémon encyclopedia, and choose one Pokémon to work with throughout the activity. Then, learners are given roughly 10-15 minutes to write out detailed steps for how a person would draw their chosen Pokémon, without naming the Pokémon, and are encouraged to note the Pokémon’s color(s), appendages, size, and any distinguishing physical features. After the learners have their full set of instructions, they swap these instructions with another person, and each participant in the workshop takes roughly 5 minutes to try and draw the Pokémon based on the instructions received. Below is an example set of instructions for the Pokémon Machamp:
- The Pokémon has two legs, four arms, and four hands.
- The Pokémon has five fingers per hand, and two toes per foot.
- The Pokémon is bipedal, meaning it is walking on two legs.
- The Pokémon is grey in color and has very large muscles all over their body.
- The Pokémon is wearing black briefs with a large gold belt, similar to what a wrestler might wear.
- The Pokémon’s stance makes them appear like they want to fight, including two of their hands formed into fists.
- The Pokémon’s head has three yellow, scalp-length parallel spikes that start at their nose and appear to go to the back of their head.
- The Pokémon has yellow lips and a large mouth that appears pink when it is open.
- The Pokémon has two eyes with red irises, each eye on either side of the set of spikes.
Image of the Pokémon Machamp via Bulbapedia
After the participants show their drawings to each other, levity often ensues as each person sees how their instructions were realized into a Pokémon, with some of the drawings being closer to reality than others! It’s important to note that some learners may not feel comfortable showing the drawings they made, so the facilitator should allow participants the option to show their drawing to the class, or to just take part in the activity without showing the drawing.
At this stage of the activity, I engage the learners in a conversation about applying the same detail and creativity to documenting their own processes when working with research data. I reiterate to learners that this not only benefits them as the original researcher, but anyone else in the future who may want to reproduce their research (or draw their Pokémon). I have facilitated this activity in undergraduate courses on data literacy as well as in campus workshops with students, staff, and faculty in attendance from both STEM and Humanities backgrounds. In these teaching experiences, I have found that learners tend to approach this conversation more enthusiastically after completing the Pokémon activity, and more willing to discuss how they might add these techniques into their own research workflow. In the future, I hope to conduct more quantitative assessment of the improvement of learning outcomes based on this activity.
Popular Culture is Your Friend in Data Management Education
Activities teaching RDM concepts through a popular culture lens can make these topics more approachable and reduce learning barriers for some researchers. While there are absolutely researchers who may prefer to learn these techniques through a more traditional, straightforward lens, there are also folks who may connect with the learning experience more strongly through a popular culture lens. Especially as the need for research data management education is growing amidst a research data landscape increasingly valuing transparency, reproducibility, and data sharing/open data, it is important for data management educators to have a variety of ways to teach these concepts to a diverse learner population. Presenting a topic through a popular culture lens can challenge our preconceived notions about that topic, and incite emotions that can create a unique, engaging learning experience. Many researchers express worries over the time burden around implementing RDM techniques into their research process, and having a lighthearted, fun learning environment around these techniques may make them more likely to view these techniques favorably and use them in their research. I encourage anyone who is teaching RDM to consider how you may bring in elements of popular culture into your lessons, and I am always happy to chat through ideas for designing lesson plans using popular culture for teaching RDM concepts!