Why is Statistics So Scary?

scared womanI have been completely immersed in the world of statistics for the last three and a half years. I have had the privaledge of teaching for most of that time as well. What I am amazed to see over and over again is that there are hundreds of people out there who are afraid of statistics and don’t know why!

My first question when someone says, “I hate statistics,” is always, “Why?”

The most common answers I get are:

“I am really bad at math.”
“My friend said it was hard, and I have to take it.”
“I hated that class.”

My response to the first one is that statistics uses some basic math but really its the art of understanding information.

To the second I usually say nothing because no one can get through college on what other people do in their classes.

The third is the one that interests me the most because usually a bad instructor was to blame. I don’t ever want to be one of those. Now, you have to know that the reason that I ask why is because as an eductator I want to know things that I can do to improve my students’ experience with statistics.

What I need is the nitty gritty. Why didn’t/don’t you like your statistics class? Is it because the examples didn’t apply to you? Is it because the instructor couldn’t answer your questions? Is it because it was all words and not enough graphics? Is it because you had a bad attitude going into it so the class never stood a chance in your mind? I am looking for people’s specific comments on the question, “Why is statistics so scary?”

What does Human Computer Interaction really mean?

We have a relatively new “virtual” department at Iowa State University (ISU) called Human Computer Interaction (HCI). What I mean by virtual department is, that in order to get a degree in HCI you must co-major in it and first have a home department. Also, most of the HCI faculty also have home departments somewhere else.

According to Wikipedia, HCI is, “is the study of interaction between people (users) and computers. It is an interdisciplinary subject, relating computer science with many other fields of study and research.”

This is similar to how the field was described to me, with concrete examples of how the fields of psychology and sociology have real issues with trying to make usable software for students in their fields. So, I assumed that this was an accurate description of HCI departments across the board. I had no idea that it so much more complex than that. I was first introduced to it by my advisor in the statistics department who is an HCI faculty member.

I was immediately interested in the field because there is a ton of statistics that goes into determining how successful the programs are, as well as the statistics that are incorporated into research in any field. One of the reason I like statistics so much is that it is applicable to any subject. Having unending interests in many different fields this appealed to me greatly. I soon decided that no matter what I got my PhD in, HCI would be part of it.

That was when I started asking around (I had many friends who were computer science majors). I soon found out that depending on who you asked, ISU either had a great or a horrible HCI department. This confused me because I was under the assumption, as I stated before, that the definition of HCI was the same across the board. After that I did a little asking around and searching on the internet and came up with a little more clarifying information.

At ISU we have a world renowned virtual reality lab (VRAC) and that is the driving force behind our HCI department. A

Below are a few descriptions and bits of information on this field that I was able to find from a couple different institutions, with a little help from Google, of course…

Carnegie Mellon has a Human-Computer Interaction Institute and their mission is:
“To create effective, usable, enjoyable experiences with technology through interdisciplinary research in engineering, design, computer science, and the behavioral and social sciences, and to understand the impact of technology on individuals, groups, and organizations.” ( http://www.hcii.cmu.edu/ ) They also have a video at their site that explains their program.

Stanford University has a neat site with many different publications (.pdf files) about new technologies and techniques in the field. (http://hci.stanford.edu/ ) I read two neat articles about prototyping camera-based interaction through examples, and also one discussing gaze-enhanced scrolling techniques. The first articles describes a new software called Eyepatch, described in the article as a tool that, “allows novice programmers to extract useful data from live video and stream that data to other rapid prototyping tools, such as Adobe Flash, d.tools [14], and Microsoft Visual Basic.” The other article investigates ways to scroll by observing the gaze of the user. I found that information fascinating.

The University of Maryland has a HCI Lab (HCIL) and they describe their work, “The HCIL is an interdisciplinary lab comprised of faculty and students from Information Studies, Computer Science, Education, English, Business, and Psychology. Our current work includes new approaches to information visualization, interfaces for digital libraries, multimedia resources for learning communities, zoomable user interfaces (ZUIs), technology design methods with and for children, mobile and pen-based computing and instruments for evaluating user interface technologies.” (http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/about/ )

An Applied Math and Statistics Workshop

This summer North Carolina State University ran a really neat workshop that involved mathematical and statistics modeling. I am always interested in how people are advancing students in applied math and statistics. The website (see below) for the workshop describes the objective as,

“The objective of the workshop is to expose graduate students in mathematics, engineering, and statistics to challenging and exciting real-world problems arising in industrial and government laboratory research. The students also learn about the team approach to problem solving.”

Real-world problems and a team approach to problem solving are the important things listed in my opinion. There is not enough interest in our fields and I personally believe that is because there aren’t enough people trying to recruit people into the subjects. One way thing that I believe is an integral tool in building interest is showing how the fields of math and statistics apply to the real world. That is one of the main reasons that I fell in love with mathematics as an undergraduate. While some people are born math lovers some of the rest of us have to be converted. My hat’s off to workshops like this one at NC State that highlight the applications of mathematics and statistics in the real world.

The procedure of the workshop was to team up students with the scientists and engineers that deal with the real world problems in their work. The problems that were given to them were to make some advancement in the field in which they worked. There were a couple mentors for each group.

I was also impressed that they didn’t require any experience to apply, just commitment. I like it when programs are open to anyone who may want to try out a little math or stats in the real world.

To read for yourself about the workshop visit the webpage at http://www.ncsu.edu/crsc/imsm/index.php