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Jul 21, 2014

AP statistics...learning to solve real-world problems

Chris Olsen, AP Statistics pioneer and author, will lead a workshop at the SAS office in Boston on July 15 and 16. The workshop focuses on developing computing skills that will enable the use of statistical software in the AP Statistics course. To give educators a sense of what they can expect in the workshop, I asked Chris to talk about his passion for statistics and advancing the teaching of statistics in high school.

This is the International Year of Statistics, and most businesses see the important role statistics plays in being competitive. But why is statistics becoming more important to high schoolers? 

I think it has been important to high school students since about 1920 --  as I recall, that is the first time the NCTM recommended teaching it in high schools. I think it is not becoming more important; rather, it is becoming more accessible due to technology. The technology -- computer software and calculators with statistical functions -- allows us to teach the concepts of statistics without forcing students through computational nightmares.

 A lot of students suffer from math anxiety. How do you get them to be interested in statistics?

Statistics is just the course for students with math anxiety! Statistics is a combination of logic, science, communication and (with the advent of statistical software) very little algebraic manipulation. There is an exciting world out there, and statistics opens the doors to it.

As a math teacher, what new skills do you need to teach statistics? Should you have a background in stat?

A background in statistics is absolutely essential. Statistics is very different from mathematics. In mathematics, problems are solved by abstracting from the real world. In statistics, we still must go into that abstract world and get numbers and pictures, but that is just the beginning of the story. In statistics, we have to return to the real world and solve real problems. An individual trained in mathematics but not statistics will tend to teach the mathy stuff as the goal, not the temporary half-way point. The good news is that math teachers can and do make the transition after as little as one statistics course.

Do you see software technology influencing the teaching of statistics?

Absolutely! Without software we would have to grind out calculations by hand, focusing on algebraic tricks and computational formulas. That's the way I learned statistics. Thank goodness -- and JMP -- that I don't have to teach it that way!

You've been teaching AP stat for some time. Can you tell us about the changes you've seen in the perception of statistics in high schools and what the future of the science might look like?

I don't think the perception has changed so much as it has been  created  in response to the Advanced Placement Statistics course. AP Statistics has revolutionized high school math. Before statistics, we taught math as a subject to get the best students to calculus, and drop the rest along the way. With statistics, we have a course that is relevant to every high school student and essential for the college-bound student.

 You crisscross the country advocating and teach high school statistics. Why?

I guess the answer to that is simple.

A.  I think every student should have an opportunity to fall in love with statistics as I have.

B.  My generation of math teachers was not trained in statistics, and I figured I could try to help.

C.  Darn it, teachers are the best people -- it is great to hang around with them.


Click here to find out more about the two-day complimentary workshop.