More and more information is at our fingertips, thanks to engineers and computer scientists who translate enormous amounts of complex data from portable and wearable devices into language that users can easily understand.
But what if the user is a fourth-grader?
Janet Meiling Roveda, a University of Arizona associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is addressing that question as co-principal investigator of the "Z-Factor," officially called the Sleep Education Program to Improve STEM Education in Elementary School.
More than 500 fourth- and fifth-grade students in the Catalina Foothills School District are expected to participate in Z-Factor over the next three years, the largest-ever national study of elementary school students’ sleep habits and STEM learning.
The study involves creating a curriculum that uses the topic of sleep to develop students' skills and interests in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields. In the process, the program is expected to educate children and parents about sleep's role in academic performance, perhaps encouraging more sleep in students' routines.
"With this study, we're trying to get kids engaged in STEM topics and rested enough to pursue them," Roveda said.
Michelle Perfect, associate professor in the College of Education's Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, is the lead investigator on the $1.2 million project funded by the National Science Foundation's Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers.
Secure Software Program
For the STEM-learning and sleep-monitoring parts of the study, Roveda has developed a Web-based software program called "MySleep," which is highly encrypted and password-protected with secure algorithms built in.
"While most algorithms for research studies are nonlinear in complexity, our algorithms use high-speed linear encryption and secure data compression techniques that require users to compress and recover the data several times," Roveda said. She developed the novel algorithms for Z-Factor with help from UA engineers Linda Powers and Wolfgang Fink, experts in designing large-scale biomedical research studies.
"With a study of this magnitude, especially one that involves the information of children, we want to make sure all information is secure," Roveda said.
The software collects and analyzes thousands of gigabytes of data from activity monitors the children wear and converts the data into understandable and interesting content for students using the MySleep website.
The children will wear actigraphs — watch-like monitors that track hours of sleep, quality of sleep, restlessness and other factors — for multiple nights early in the study. At the end of the recording period, they will upload data from their monitors to tablets the district has purchased for the project. The data will be stored on a secure server.
When students enter their personal MySleep portals on the Internet — to which parents and teachers also have access — they will see avatars in their likenesses and caricatures of parents, teachers and friends. Colorful graphs will show students their sleep patterns, and planning charts will help them monitor daily activities.
Students will design personal research projects based on data from their activity monitors. In the process, the students will learn about science and math and develop critical thinking and communication skills. They may even discover that a little more sleep can help them do better on a math quiz.
"Z-Factor is based on the premise that having students solve problems in real-world situations that are relevant to their daily lives can have a long-lasting positive impact on their interest in STEM and intention to pursue additional STEM courses and careers," Roveda said.
Teachers will incorporate data from MySleep into their lessons on math, statistics, averages, probabilities and other subjects. Roveda and Perfect are developing the curriculum in collaboration with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a nonprofit science education organization.
"The work Janet is doing will help kids analyze their personal data in a developmentally appropriate way," said Perfect, a licensed psychologist who has extensive experience working with young children and families. "By studying their own sleep data and using mobile technologies for personal data management, these elementary school students are on a real-world research frontier."
As part of the project assessment, students in the Z-Factor study will take pre- and post-assessment tests developed by Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and selected by Perfect and other UA researchers to assess whether interest and skills in STEM topics have grown.
The Z-Factor team already is working to make the program more widely available, and members are planning to translate the MySleep content into Spanish and adapt the program to work efficiently with less costly sleep-tracking devices or only handwritten sleep diaries.
"We want this data-driven sleep research study and STEM curriculum to be accessible to every student in every school," Roveda said.