UNLEASHING THE POWER OF STATS

Psychologist Lisa Dierker. Photo: John van Vlack

Psychologist Lisa Dierker.

There are “number” people, and there are “word” people. Left brains, and right brains. “Quants” and English majors. Or so most of us believe, and Lisa Dierker was no different when she entered Ohio State University in 1986, a first-generation college student paying her own way through school. 

“I was terrified,” she says. “I couldn’t fail—there were no safety nets, so I carefully chose English and calculus my first semester.  It was honors English, and my professor loved me… my calculus teacher seemed to think that I was nothing special; of course, I was an English major.”

While she did well that first semester of college, Dierker knew: there was a danger of being “weeded out” of the sciences.

“I was attracted to empirical work. I wanted to ask questions. And I knew math and science could put me in a potentially powerful position. I wanted that for myself. But I couldn’t risk pursuing a discipline unless I could be certain that I would successfully complete it,” she said.

“Though I had a place at the university and a seat in a classroom, that did not feel like the same thing to my 18-year-old self as ‘access’ in the form of a welcome place at the table.” 

Little did Dierker reckon that a couple of decades later, her frustration at the weeding out process would lead her to make quantitative sciences accessible to thousands more students. 

Her undergraduate experience—and subsequent intensive and heavily quantitative post-doctoral work—ultimately inspired Dierker to create Passion-Driven Statistics, a five-year-old course at Wesleyan that gives students of any stripe (even English majors) access to quantitative tools, helping them to explore questions through statistics. The course, which launched as Applied Data Analysis 201, doesn’t simply teach the mathematical nuts and bolts of the subject. Dierker and Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center, which runs the course, ask students what they most want to find out, and then help them master the tools to get the answers through a project-driven, mentored class.

The course, which has enrolled more than 500 students since its inception in 2009, enlists former students as mentoring assistants and encourages groups and pairs to work together in class. It’s an entirely “flipped” format; online lectures and readings are the homework and class time is spent on projects. Multimedia lessons and an iBook on the course provide background; data and other resources for the student projects come from public archives, Wesleyan faculty research, and data sets compiled by local nonprofit community agencies.

“Passion Driven Statistics is tied to actual data, and tied to something tangible. While your research may not turn out to say something interesting, the idea that it could, or the idea that you are maybe finding something new, is really invigorating,” said Isabel Rouse ’14.

Rouse took the course as a First Year Initiative and continued as a teaching assistant and mentor in the class her sophomore and junior years. The student assistant piece of the class is critical, Dierker said, because it allows students to teach each other and solve practical problems together.

More than 100 students made presentations at the Quantitative Analysis Center Research Poster Session Dec. 6 in Beckham Hall. The poster session served as the students’ QAC 201 final exam. The event provides students with the opportunity to share the fruits of their work with others. Photos by Olivia Drake MALS ’08

More than 100 students made presentations at the Quantitative Analysis Center Research Poster Session Dec. 6 in Beckham Hall. The poster session served as the students’ QAC 201 final exam. The event provides students with the opportunity to share the fruits of their work with others. Photos: Olivia Drake MALS ’08

“I liked translating difficult stats concepts into intelligible, relatable ideas, and helping people focus their vision to see the relationship between the parts and the whole, from where they had come, to where they were, to where they were going with their project,” said Rouse, who is a Science in Society major with concentrations in philosophy and biology. 

Dierker’s epiphany, of sorts, came during a post-doctoral position at Yale Medical School, which presented her with a rapid-fire series of urgent projects that required serious, quantitative skills. She learned quickly that statistical tools don’t have to be—shouldn’t be—merely dispensed from the front of a classroom or the pages of a textbook. Using analysis to attack a problem or project allows for intuition and creativity and offers a sense of accomplishment—as well as producing successful results.

“I was having data and projects thrown at me; we had to figure things out by actually working with data. I learned more in those three years at Yale than in all of the quantitative courses that I took in my undergraduate and graduate years combined,” she said. “It was when I finally moved beyond simply performing well on exams and had the opportunity to embrace the exciting, messy, curious, stimulating work of statistical inquiry, that I was transformed.”

Manolis Kaparakis, an economist who directs the Centers for Advanced Computing and the Quantitative Analysis Center and supported the launch of Dierker’s course, agreed. “The way we have structured things, disciplines have courses that weed out people. The way I was trained as an undergraduate, it was pure mathematical statistics—although it’s a powerful tool, it may close the door to people—they want to get to their target, not the math theory.” 

When Dierker, a professor of psychology, arrived at Wesleyan, “it was a no-brainer to ditch the way I had been taught, and to start from a place of passion.” She was able to test a more project-driven class in her basic methods course, but she worried the approach wouldn’t fly. “I was fearful the effort would fail and possibly even fail spectacularly.”

An initiative of the QAC allowed Dierker to propose an entirely new experience and led to the launch of the course, with 80 students, in 2009. But why “passion-driven”?

“Statistics are amazing and powerful tools for answering questions about ourselves and the world around us. Who doesn’t feel passionately about being able to do that? For me, it took nearly 10 years and the completion of more than five graduate level statistics courses to feel empowered and passionate about stats.”

The scientific world has taken notice. The course is supported by a National Science Foundation Grant; last year she and David Beveridge, professor of chemistry and the Joshua Boger University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics, received an additional NSF grant of $599,995 to further develop the course and allow it to be implemented at other institutions.

Last year, Dierker took Passion Driven Statistics to a larger audience: the world. The class was one of seven Wesleyan courses offered as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on the Coursera platform, attracting more than 20,000 students initially. (The class will be offered again but no date has been scheduled.)

Several Wesleyan faculty and alumni evaluated the students’ poster presentations.  Photo by Olivia Drake MALS ’08

Several Wesleyan faculty and alumni evaluated the students’ poster presentations. Photo: Olivia Drake MALS ’08

There were challenges in figuring out how to take a curriculum so entirely dependent on in-class work—and presentation of projects—completely digital. At first, Dierker wondered how it would go—or whether it would fall flat.

“It made me dig deep,” she admits. “I came up with several 25-minute lectures, a software demo… .” There were quizzes and project presentations on student blogs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was in the MOOC’s active discussion forums for the course that the real learning took place. Much as the class at Wesleyan encourages students to work together and ask questions of each other, many hundreds of students around the world—most of them not of traditional college age—found a form of group learning in the digital space. Students shared their work with each other and offered feedback and troubleshooting on projects.

“I never dreamed or imagined what kind of learning community you could have,” Dierker said. “While in the classroom I feel completely responsible for the students’ experience, within a MOOC, the larger community brings a richness I could never achieve on my own.”

The MOOC also changed the way Dierker teaches, she said, giving her greater commitment to the “flipped classroom” model and more insight into how to make information accessible.

“We have diversity at Wesleyan, but my sense of classroom diversity was enormously expanded because of this MOOC,” she said. “One student on the forums was actually working as a fellow at the bureau of statistics in South Sudan. It made me start thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, Wes students could learn alongside people from all over the world.’ I believe that this sort of open approach and access to education will allow everyone’s strengths to be used in an optimal way. When I asked [Coursera students], why do you want to be in this course, most talked about becoming empowered. Politicians, nurse-midwives … they want to stand toe-to-toe with researchers.”

Karparakis agrees that it’s about people’s desire to harness the power of information. 

“In the past, when data and computers were not as common, there were people with specialized training and they were like gods. And we would say, ‘Oh gods, tell me what you see in that data.’” Now, technology has made it possible to see alternatives, “and this approach resonates.”

For Isabel Rouse, the class fueled and supported her major interests and also led to a competitive internship at the University of Maryland, where she worked for a government statistics agency, and last year, a job at Bain & Co., a Boston-based consulting firm. 

More importantly, though, she believes her QAC experience (as a student and an assistant) grounded her in valuable professional skills: “presenting to others, feeling comfortable with uncertainty, taking initiative, teamwork and leadership, and an ability to sort through information and glean relevant conclusions.”

A later statistical consulting course built on those skills and allowed her to work with the Connecticut Connection Centers, an organization of halfway houses and mental health/addiction centers, which in turn pushed her to become more interested in applied and interdisciplinary research relating to public health. 

Dierker, meanwhile, is on sabbatical leave for 2013–14, busy with her own scholarly work. Her current work is on nicotine dependence; she received a $521,000 grant two years ago from the National Institutes of Health to study addiction. Naturally, the topic calls for plenty of applied quantitative analysis.