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

Earlier this 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 by West Hub’s Science Writer Kim Bruch of the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego. The recognition celebrated a year-long collaboration between Pala and SDSC whereby Smith has been supportive of Bruch working with youth on the reservation related to data science and hands-on science experiments as well as overall higher education encouragement and guidance.

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

“We have been really happy with the work completed with Kentucky 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.”

Minchan Kim, UC San Diego data science student, explained an array of data science concepts to the students each week. Credit: K. Bruch

Bruch, also known as Kentucky Kim at Pala, 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. 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. Bruch thought this was a great 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 are abundant, as the presence of the species increases the chances of nest box use. 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!” said Lesley.

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 (inland San Diego county) as well as near TPHS (coastal San Diego county). So, they consulted with Handa on how best to proceed and then put out 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 mentioned by Lele 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 National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Kim helped the high school students sort and analyze over 30,000 bluebird data sets. Specifically, Kim was provided complimentary access to by the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory and this allowed him to download data for Western bluebird sightings throughout southern California.

Kim Bruch of SDSC recognized Pala Band of Mission Indians Chairman Robert Smith for his support of higher education activities for tribal youth. Credit: L. Hicks

“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 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

Bruch said that a large part of the team’s success has been due to Diane Durro, a Pala elder that translates the students’ work to their Native language of Cupeno. “Diane never gives up on us even when our pronunciation is not the best,” Bruch 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 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. Bruch said that she looks forward to continuing her work with the Pala students and their families as “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.”

Pala’s Diane Durro presented SDSC’s Kim Bruch with a painting at Pala Cupa Days. Credit: L. Hicks

Funding for Bruch and Kim has been provided by the West Big Data Innovation Hub, which is supported by the NSF through awards 1916573, 1916481 and 1915774.

“The West Hub celebrates the achievements of the Pala and Torrey Pines students in this year’s DataJam competition,” said Executive Director Ashley Atkins. “Science Writer Kim Bruch had an integral role in leading this team, and we are thrilled to support her efforts—and the success of the students.”

Additional information about the NSF REU work within the project has been provided at


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