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Making change happen in teaching statistics

Educators from around the world will gather this week at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center in Research Triangle, NC, to attend this year’s US Conference on Teaching Statistics (USCOTS), May 16-18. They will hear from thought leaders and practitioners such as Xiao-Li Meng, Dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Chris Wild, Professor of Statistics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, on the future of teaching statistics.

SAS, including JMP, is actively involved with USCOTS 2013. Besides attending and exhibiting, JMP will be hosting a banquet on the campus to show support for statistics and the people who teach it.

Curt Hinrichs, JMP Academic Marketing Manager, said: “Well over 90 percent of students taking any statistics course in the United States take an introductory service course that satisfies a graduation requirement. These are students in a variety of academic majors who may think stats is just another math course they have to take. Changing these views and making this experience a positive and compelling one are important to the long-term acceptance of data-driven problem solving. USCOTS is the premier undergraduate statistics education event here in the United States that is dedicated to promoting pedagogical innovations that improve student engagement and learning of statistics concepts. SAS and JMP are proud to be a major supporter of this event and these goals."

Recently, I had a chance to ask Allan Rossman, Program Chair and Professor of Statistics at California Polytechnic State University, what USCOTS is and why it's important to the teaching of statistics.

What is USCOTS all about?

USCOTS is about bringing together people who teach statistics, so they can exchange ideas about how to do even better at that important and challenging task. We focus on teaching statistics at the undergraduate level, including AP Statistics that is taught in high schools. We also consider the important issues of preparing teachers of statistics at K-12 levels and conducting educational research into how students learn statistics.

We aim to model good teaching in all aspects of the conference. We have four plenary presentations and many breakout sessions that are designed to be interactive and to provide participants with take-home materials for use with their students. We also have poster sessions that enable teachers to show and have conversations about new ideas and best practices in teaching statistics.

Who is attending?

We're expecting more than 400 attendees, statistics teachers and education researchers from across the country and some from other parts of the world. Most of the participants are college and university faculty, also including teachers from two-year colleges and high schools.

Why is it important to teach statistics?

Understanding basic ideas of data and chance is essential to leading a well-informed life in today's information society, and future professionals in a wide variety of disciplines need to learn how to collect and analyze and draw conclusions from data. Statistics has come to be viewed as a popular field recently, thanks to businesses such as Google and amazon.com and to individuals such as Nate Silver who achieve remarkable success by gaining insights from data. We who teach statistics want to convey to our students how worthwhile and interesting our field is.

What will attendees come away with from the event?

We hope that attendees will leave the conference having had stimulating conversations about how to teach statistics well. They'll come away with specific materials to use in class and with concrete suggestions for changing their courses and curricula. We trust that participants will also emerge with thought-provoking ideas to occupy their minds for days and weeks and months to come. We also hope that people will come away with a network of colleagues and friends with whom they can continue to converse about teaching statistics.

Where is the future for USCOTS and the teaching of statistics?

The theme of this year's USCOTS is "Making Change Happen." This is an exciting time and perhaps a very changeable time for education in general and for the teaching of statistics in particular. The "big data" phenomenon may well change how and what we teach in undergraduate statistics, and evolving software and computing capabilities are changing what and how we teach, and revised curricula at the K-12 level provide great opportunities for change at the undergraduate level. I'm not sure where the teaching of statistics is heading, but I'm looking forward to hearing many perspectives on this important question at USCOTS.

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