Dierker, Rose Win $2.8M NSF Award for Innovative Approach to Teaching Statistics

Lisa Dierker

Wesleyan professors Lisa Dierker and Jennifer Rose were recently awarded a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to extend and disseminate their research on passion-driven statistics. The grant begins in the fall of 2018 and extends through 2023.

Recognizing the rapidly increasing importance of data-oriented skills in the modern workforce, passion-driven statistics was developed as a novel approach to make statistics and quantitative methods courses more accessible and engaging, particularly for traditionally marginalized students. It moves away from canned exercises, toward more applied, real-world, project-based learning experiences.

”An empowering curriculum needs to rise to many challenges,” Dierker said. “Those include promoting inquiry across a wide range of disciplines, building new skills as challenges arise, facilitating the use of modern computing tools, providing support for students regardless of educational background, and framing statistics as an exciting set of tools for understanding a complex world. We are confident in and excited about this project’s ability to do all of that.”

The approach is especially noteworthy because of its potential reach and scale. By structuring quantitative research around students’ initial interests—e.g., health, politics, ecology, space science, and more—passion-driven statistics sparks enthusiasm for learning statistics, while offering an environment that is welcoming and supportive of students from all backgrounds and skill levels.

Jennifer Rose

Research supporting the passion-driven statistics model has demonstrated that the project-based course has enrolled higher rates of underrepresented minority (URM) students compared to a traditional introductory statistics course. When compared to both a traditional introductory statistics course and introductory programming courses, passion-driven statistics has also been shown to attract students from a wider range of academic backgrounds as measured by Math SAT scores. Those students completing the passion-driven statistics course are also more likely to show an increase in their interest in pursuing advanced coursework in statistics.

More recently, the model has been taught successfully across a range of educational settings. As an example, the curriculum is already self-sustaining at 10 colleges and universities and enrolls more than 900 students per year.

In a world where the average person is inundated with data on a daily basis, sorting out the signal from the noise is more critical than ever,” Dierker said. “We will have met this challenge when data analysis and interpretation skills become as ubiquitous as reading or writing.”

This latest grant grew out of Dierker’s earlier NSF-funded work between 2009 and 2012 (a $200,000 award) and between 2013 and 2017 (a $600,000 award), both of which supported the development and refinement of an innovative, multidisciplinary, and uniquely supportive introductory statistics curriculum. Over the next five years, Dierker and Rose will disseminate passion-driven statistics to more than 70 educational settings across the country, to hundreds of instructors and thousands of students. Partners include Hispanic-serving institutions, regional universities, community colleges, liberal-arts colleges, large state universities, schools of medicine, a public school district, individual high schools, and GEAR UP high school enrichment programs. These new sites also represent implementation across many disciplines, including educational leadership, sociology, political science, business, agriculture, engineering, chemistry, biology, psychology, epidemiology and public health, occupational therapy, data science, mathematics/statistics, and architecture.

Ultimately, Dierker and Rose want the program to shift the student view of statistics from a necessary evil to an essential way of understanding the world, and help students build confidence in their ability to analyze data.

“It gives young people who may never have seen themselves as quantitative or technical a chance to view themselves differently,” Dierker said.

Dierker is the Walter Crowell University Professor of Social Sciences, professor of psychology, and has training in chronic disease epidemiology. Rose is director and professor of the practice in the Center for Pedagogical Innovation. Both bring to the project expertise in the application of innovative statistical methods. Passion-driven statistics is taught through the Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) at Wesleyan (QAC201 Applied Data Analysis) and is available through Coursera (Data Analysis and Interpretation). Manolis Kaparakis, director of Centers for Advanced Computing, visiting assistant professor of quantitative analysis; Robert Kabacoff, professor of the practice in quantitative analysis; and Valerie Nazzaro, assistant professor of the practice in quantitative analysis, provide ongoing support and guidance for the curriculum.

To learn more about the project, attend the next student poster session held from noon to 3 p.m., Dec. 7, in Beckham Hall on the Wesleyan campus, and view informational videos on the college-level project, as well as high school adaptations for the Bridgeport GEAR UP and Utah GEAR UP students.

In a Sept. 17 Roth on Wesleyan blog, Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 acknowledged “with pride the important National Science Foundation grant that professors Lisa Dierker and Jennifer Rose recently received to export across the country the Passion Driven Statistics classes they have been developing here at Wesleyan. Their project, ‘A Data-Driven, Multidisciplinary Curriculum Providing Access to the Data Analytics Economy for Everyone,’ will improve STEM education while at the same time making it more accessible to different kinds of learners.”