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Pala Band of Mission Indians Recognized for Western Bluebird Data Science Education

Published June 6, 2023

A poster explaining the work of the students was presented at an annual competition called DataJam.

[Enlarge] A poster explaining the work of the students was presented at an annual competition called DataJam.  Credit: SDSC

By SDSC Communications Team

Last month at the 47th Annual Pala Band of Mission Indians Cupa Days, Chairman Robert Smith was presented with an award recognizing his commitment to higher education opportunities for young people on the Pala reservation. Kimberly Mann Bruch of the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego presented the award, which celebrated a year-long collaboration between Pala and SDSC whereby Mann Bruch, with Smith’s support, led students through hands-on experiments related to data science and science.

“We have been really happy with the work completed with Kim and hope to transition these activities to include even more students,” Smith said. “Last year the Pala students worked on an after-school data science project about the pH levels of the San Luis Rey River, which runs through our reservation, and this year they wanted to learn more about bluebirds and their population status in southern California – we worked to make that happen through a Western Bluebird data science education project.”

Mann Bruch, a science writer, editor and outreach lead for SDSC’s External Relations Division,  said that UC San Diego Medical Student Alec Calac (a member of the Pauma Valley tribe) introduced the Pala team to a group at the San Diego Audubon Society to determine a “game plan” for their efforts. Mann Bruch met with Lesley Handa, an ornithologist with the Audubon Society, to learn more about Western bluebirds and then shared the information with the Pala students. Soon thereafter, Pala Middle Schooler Amara Sanchez suggested a comparison of Western bluebird populations among southern California counties. Mann Bruch supported this idea and before long additional students from Torrey Pines High School (TPHS) caught wind of the activity and asked if they could join the project.

“The finding of this research lays the groundwork by informing us options of where to put up nest boxes around the county, as the presence of the species increases the chances of nest box use,” Handa said. “We are excited that the group decided to focus on analyzing Western Bluebird data in San Diego County as it is a focal bird species for conservation for the California Bluebird Recovery Program (CBRP) and for the San Diego Audubon Society locally, as a Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) species. This species has multiple conservation challenges that simultaneously affect other bird species dependent on the same resources, such as habitat loss of natural nesting areas from the destruction of tree snags and harm to insects that are the primary food source from excessive pesticide use. Through CBRP, installing Western Bluebird boxes helps to mitigate the loss of natural habitat, provides an opportunity to contribute to community science, and brings attention to this charismatic species for the general public to enjoy!”

Group of people walking down dirt path under a blue sky

Situated approximately 40 miles northeast of downtown San Diego and 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the Reservation of the Pala Band of Mission Indians is home to 1250 enrolled members– consisting of Cupeños and Luiseños. Credit: K. Bruch

TPHS Sophomore Sneha Lele and TPHS Freshman Lily Bruch worked with Sanchez to learn more about Western Bluebirds. The girls wanted to place bluebird boxes on the reservation, which is inland in San Diego County, and near TPHS, which is more coastal.  So they consulted with Handa on how best to proceed and then placed their boxes.

“While we have not seen any bluebirds yet, we are certain they’ll come,” Lele said. “More important than having a flock of bluebirds visit our birdhouses, this project allowed me to work with students that I otherwise would not have met, and I was also able to hone my data science skills.”

These data science skills were taught by UC San Diego Data Science Student Minchan Kim, who participated in the project through a training opportunity with the West Big Data Innovation Hub and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Kim helped the students sort and analyze over 30,000 bluebird data sets. Specifically, Kim was provided complementary access to by the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory, which allowed him to download data for Western Bluebird sightings throughout southern California.

“Although we were a bit intimidated by the large number of recorded sightings—more than 30,000—we were excited when we finally got it all parsed and realized that San Diego was barely behind Los Angeles for the total number of sightings,” Kim explained. “This project gave me a chance to share my love for data filtering and analysis with high school students, and I really enjoyed working with as well – they were incredibly helpful in allowing us to use their data tools.”

The bluebird project with the Pala and TPHS students was specifically created in conjunction with a program called DataJam, which is run by Judy Cameron, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The DataJam program, which holds an annual competition for high school students, provided the Pala and TPHS team with an opportunity to present their work to a panel of data science professionals and receive feedback on their work.

“We were happy to see the Pala and Torrey Pines students present their data analysis about the bluebirds of southern California this year,” Cameron said. “Being able to expand our work from the east coast to the west coast has been very rewarding and we are eager to see what this team does next in the world of data science and beyond.”

According to Mann Bruch, the students are now looking at conducting a data science project related to music and plan on calling it Data Riffs. “We are excited to get going on another project and will be able to use what Minchan taught us to compare our data sets,” Sanchez said. “We haven’t decided exactly what we will be working on, but we want it to be related to music and it’ll definitely be something you won’t want to miss!”

Pala Cupa Days bird singing is a beautiful musical tradition that provides a meditative rhythm using gourd rattles and vocals.
Credit: K. Bruch

Mann Bruch said that a large part of the team’s success has been due to Diane Durro, a Pala elder who translates the students’ work to their Native language of Cupeno. “Diane never gives up on us even when our pronunciation is not the best,” she said. “I’ve been happy to share my love of data science and overall science experiments with the students—yet, I find that while I came here to share academic knowledge with the students, I find myself learning much more from Diane and my friends at Pala.”

One such lesson Mann Bruch said she learned from Durro is the notion of reciprocity, which she explained as the concept of realizing a person’s gifts and sharing/receiving them with/from others—whether they be “book sense” such as mathematics and language arts or “common sense” such as kindness and respect for all cultures. Mann Bruch said that she looks forward to continuing her work with the Pala students and their families, adding,  “Although we might appear to be different from one another, we are actually quite the same—we all just want to continue supporting and guiding the future generation in a positive direction.”

Funding for Mann Bruch and Minchan Kim has been provided by the West Big Data Innovation Hub, which is supported by the NSF (award nos. 1916573, 1916481 and 1915774). Additional information about the NSF REU work within the project has been provided here.