What can you do with your profession during a pandemic?

If you’re a science educator, you might try using scientific data to educate the public. This is what Mike Szydlowski, the K-12 science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, has been doing since mid-March.

To create a historical record of what’s going on in Missouri for students and the public to use in the future, Szydlowski decided to publish coronavirus data, along with his analysis, regularly on his Twitter feed.

The first difficulty he encountered was getting accurate data because case numbers differ by a little or a lot depending on the website and inconsistencies exist when data updates every minute.

In an effort to eliminate any inconsistencies, he only grabs data from a website called Worldometer because it updates case numbers every day about the same time.

Once he has the data, he enters these numbers he gets in Google sheets, imports various graphs to Twitter and adds his interpretation on top of them.

“It’s easy to get one frame of mind in the United States in thinking we know everything. Then we compare to other countries, and we realize we were wrong,” Szydlowski said. “Only data can tell that. So, as long as we have reliable data, it lets the kids look at that and make a real decision, not based on what anybody says online.”

By transforming numbers into comparable charts, he not only helps students and others see the reality but also stirs up public conversation about the spread of the virus.

Some followers commented in March that the situation in the U.S. wouldn’t be as bad as in Italy. However, data in later months proved otherwise.

Szydlowski made a similar mistake at the beginning of the outbreak. Back in January, he thought people shouldn’t worry about the virus because as he looked at data in earlier December, the flu appeared to be much worse.

Two months later, he saw he was wrong. COVID-19 is more dangerous, Szydlowski said. When comparing it with flu or other viruses that look like it, none of them exists in the summer. But instead of disappearing in the summer, the positive cases with COVID-19 are striking across the country.

The daily tweets are serving as a kind of anchor for Szydlowski.

“It keeps me grounded to make sure that I know what’s going on and don’t see anything that is incorrect or not supported by data,” he said.

In addition to informing himself about the virus, these charts speak to students and the public as well. Szydlowski said anyone in the public can access the data on social media, but his focus in the long run is on students.

He saves all the data he has produced since March 12 and plans to make the files into a digital book, with the hope students from upper elementary schools to high schools can have it in their classes to analyze.

“We can have students look at the data and see if they would’ve made the same decisions for how the country reacted and if they could back those decisions up with the data,” Szydlowski said.

Besides using Twitter to publish COVID-19 data, he uses social media to help science educators deal with their students or to tell some science news.

He hoped to take a break in the summer, but from what he sees from the data, he might not have the chance.

“I don’t want to stop now, ’cause if I stop, it’ll lose consistency,” Szydlowski said. “Right now, I guess I am going to do it until it’s no longer an issue. I hope that’s sooner rather than later, though.”

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • General reporter, summer 2020 Studying data journalism Reach me at jlx4y@mail.missouri.edu

  • Elizabeth Brixey is a city editor at the Columbia Missourian. She oversees coverage of education. She can be reached at (573) 882-2632 and brixeye@missouri.edu.

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