USDA hopes more donors support open data summer camp for teens

Maxwell Myers, a freshman at Howard High School in Maryland, gives a presentation on research he conducted at USDA's open data camp. (Whitney Blair Wyckoff/FedScoop)

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The Department of Agriculture plans to offer a free summer camp giving D.C.-area students the chance to learn about open data — if organizers can line up donors to cover its remaining costs.

Speaking at an open house for the summer camp Tuesday, USDA Deputy Chief Information Office Joyce Hunter said the agency and its partner, New York University’s GovLab, were $30,000 short of the $60,000 sponsorship they needed to hold the camp, which teaches kids how to work with the agency’s open data sets.

“Unless we get the necessary sponsors, then we may have to cancel — unfortunately,” Hunter told FedScoop. “I believe we can.”

The donations go through GovLab — Hunter said USDA can’t solicit sponsors itself — which pays for the teachers, lunches and other expenses. Donations are tax deductible, she added.

Launched last year, the camp brought 30 middle and high school students to USDA’s headquarters to learn how to employ various data tools and techniques. At the end of the session, students gave presentations on the research they conducted.

While the camp is meant to help Washington, D.C.-area kids learn about agriculture and science careers, the agency saw some direct benefits from it, as well. Hunter said last year’s camp revealed some broken links in the USDA’s data sets and inspired the agency to start developing an enterprise data management policy.

During Tuesday’s event, officials from USDA highlighted the topics that selected students would explore if plans for the 2016 camp move forward: urban agriculture and forestry, and food safety.

It also featured presentations from three students who participated last year. Sisters Ari and Nina Riggins, a freshman and senior at Key School in Maryland, said their mother Carolyn Riggins, a biostatistician by training, encouraged them to sign up for the camp.

“I didn’t know what open data was,” Ari told FedScoop. “So when my mom told me about it, I was like, if I haven’t heard of it, then maybe I should learn about it.”

“I came back from a camping trip and my mom was like, ‘Hey, I signed you up for this camp,’” Nina said with a laugh. “I gave it try, and it ended up being really cool.”

Nina plans to major in biology or entomology when she heads to college next year. Their colleague Maxwell Myers, a freshman at Howard High School in Maryland, said the camp and his instructor made him decide to pursue data science as a career.

“It was just interesting learning how to do different things with different technology that I haven’t used before,” he said.

Dr. Gregory Parham, assistant secretary of agriculture for administration, said efforts like the camp help students better understand what opportunities exist for people working in agriculture and the sciences.

“I am one,” he said. “But I’m getting kind of old, and someone needs to come and replace me.”

Editor’s note: Due to inaccurate information from the agency, an earlier version of this story misreported the amount of money organizers still need to put on the camp. 

Contact the reporter on this story via email Whitney.Wyckoff@fedscoop.com, or follow her on Twitter @whitneywyckoff. Sign up for all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning at 6:00 here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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data analytics, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Departments, Education / STEM, Government IT News, open data, open government, STEM, Tech
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