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Statistics department introduces new courses

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This year the Department of Mathematics and Statistics rolled out a new statistics curriculum which created two new applied statistics courses and incorporated teaching the R programming language into Stat 11. Student reactions to this new curriculum have been mixed, with some students wishing that professors taught R more thoroughly. Swelling enrollments in statistics and econometrics courses continue to put pressure on both the economics and math departments as demand increases for their classes.

Before the changes, Stat 11 and Stat 31 were the two applied statistics courses available. Applied statistics classes do not require any knowledge of calculus and are meant to expose students to the variety of statistical techniques that are used in research and business settings. While it existed, Stat 31 was frequently over-enrolled, mostly due to two factors. First, the math department required all statistics minors and math majors with a statistics emphasis to take Stat 31. Second, many students simply wanted to take an additional course in applied statistics. Because Stat 31 was a writing course and a requirement for statistics minors and math majors with a statistics emphasis, college rules limited the course to only 15 students. Professor of Statistics Lynne Schofield explained that the math department faculty and students felt the situation was unsustainable.

“Stat 31 was heavily overenrolled every year. We usually lotteried out more students in Stat 31 than we were able to keep in the course. For instance, this past semester 87 students preregistered for 15 spaces, and 70 were lotteried out, including 11 seniors. This was frustrating for students and professors alike. We realized that the Stat 31 situation was not tenable,” said Schofield.

To address the problem the math department has created two new applied statistics, Stat 21 and Stat 41. Stat 21 will be offered every semester and Stat 41 will be offered only in the spring. Stat 21 will serve as an intermediate applied statistics course and will be required for statistics minors, meaning the changes will not require statistics minors to take any additional courses. Stat 21 will not be a writing course, allowing more students to take it every semester. Stat 41 will be a writing course, but will only be a requirement for math majors with a statistical emphasis.

As part of the curriculum changes the math department has also decided to introduce the R programming language in all applied statistics courses, starting at Stat 11. R is commonly used to develop statistical software in academia and by companies like IBM and Oracle. While Schofield admitted that some students have struggled with R, she also noted that many were also thankful for learning such a commonly used programming language.

“In my midterm evaluation of Stat 11 done this semester, and thus a representative sample of all Stat 11 students this semester, some students did respond that they do not like R. However, more students expressed a deep appreciation for learning R, which is a free software program that is used extensively in the field of statistics and also in many other fields including biology, sociology, economics, psychology, and the digital humanities among others.”

Schofield also stated that faculty were also glad to see a wider distribution of knowledge of R among the student body and that R was being used more often and in a wider variety of settings.

“We have heard feedback from professors in each of those departments that they are happy we have introduced R to their students because they find it so useful to know. These professors also noted that R is being used more extensively in many graduate programs in statistics, biology, sociology, economics, psychology, the digital humanities, etcetera. The state of the art in statistics is now to use R, and so we are following the state of the art in the same way that any other field changes its curriculum to follow new standards.”

However, some students felt R was not taught enough in-class and questioned the usefulness of making students use it in a basic statistics class.

Nerissa Nashin ’19, who took Stat 11 this semester, wished her professor went over R more in class and noted that she did not feel she had not developed a full understanding of the language through Stat 11.

“I die with R. I die everytime. Also I don’t know how this helps us code? Like I don’t actually know how to code I just copy paste and make little changes and hope for the best … I just wish [the professor would] go through the R codes in class,” said Nashin.

Even with the changes, statistics courses continue to face enrollment pressures. Due to the number of students who registered for Stat 11 next semester, not only did the course have to be lotteried but likely no incoming first year students will be able to register for the course.

“The Stat 11 sections for the Fall 2016 semester are very full. The department has not yet made a decision as to whether or not any first years will be able to enroll. It is likely, unless some students drop Stat 11, that first year students will be unable to take Stat 11 this fall,” said Schofield.

No parallel changes have occurred in the econometrics curriculum, which comprises the applied statistics courses out of the Economics department. Introduction to Econometrics will now serve as a prerequisite to Stat 21, as it also did for Stat 31. Econometrics courses teach Stata, another statistical programming language commonly used by economists, instead of R. According to Schofield, Stat 21 requires no previous knowledge of R.

Econometrics courses have also experienced increasing enrollment, with Introduction to Econometrics being lotteried this semester. According to Professor and Chair of the Economics Department Philip Jefferson, there is not much the department can do to help ameliorate the pressure of increasing enrollments.

“The amount of faculty we have is set, the classrooms we have are set, so if enrollments are increasing there’s not much we can do individually as a department.”

Jefferson said he thinks the problem of over-enrollment in the statistics and economics department is due both to the increasing size of the student  body and the increase in student interest in STEM subjects.

“Two things are going on. Overall the size of the college is getting bigger and students are also more attracted to statistics and economics. As enrollments increase, it’s not always even how [students] spread themselves.”

It remains to be seen how effective the math department’s changes to the statistics curriculum will be in ameliorating the problem of over-enrollment. Both the economics and statistics departments will continue to think about ways they can offer enough statistics classes to meet student demand.

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