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Students Win Awards in National Statistics Competition

USPROCTwo groups of Grinnell College students won awards at this year’s Undergraduate Statistics Project Competition (USPROC) sponsored by the American Statistical Association and the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education. USPROC is an annual national competition among undergraduate students in the United States.

Alex Schmiechen ’17 and Zina Ibrahim ’17 won first place in the subcategory “First Course in Statistics.” Their project, titled Upvote or Downvote: What Makes Yik Yak Posts Popular?, was completed as part of the course Applied Statistics (MAT 209).

Their study examined Yik Yak, the anonymous social medial platform that is widely used on college campuses, in which users can indicate their liking for a post by “upvoting” or “downvoting” it. Schmiechen and Ibrahim’s study aimed to “determine potential indicators of popularity” and counted the upvotes of posts based on categories such as amount of humor, academic level, love life relevance, and whether or not it was a question.

Clark Fancher ’15, Josh Vernazza ’15, and Zack Davis ’16 won second place in the subcategory “Intermediate-level Applied Statistics Course.” Their project was titled An Examination of Age of First Drink and Effects of Church Attendance by Gender, and was carried out in the course Statistical Modeling (MAT 310).

They initially came up with this topic due to its relevance on college campuses. “Since underage alcohol consumption is so rampant throughout college campuses, we thought a study examining the age of first drink consumption would be interesting,” Davis said. They used survival analysis to model drinking patterns in Iowa youth. They also found that male church-goers have their first drink later than their female counterparts, which was different from conclusions reached in previous literature.

The results of both studies are significant in part because they pertain to current issues. Schmiechen and Ibrahim’s study highlights that further analysis could “lead to further insight into popular culture” and also be “a tool to examine a student body’s mental health”. Fancher, Vernazza, and Davis’ study addresses the benefits of decreasing underage drinking, and discusses the efficacy of after-school church programs delaying the age of first drink consumption.

Both projects were from courses taught by Professor Shonda Kuiper of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. These achievements highlight the College’s advancement in statistics education. “Students of Grinnell College are doing innovative research projects related to current events in their lives, while also utilizing advanced multivariate statistical modeling techniques,” Kuiper said.

In addition to a monetary award, both groups were invited to give a plenary talk on October 2, 2015, for the First Annual Electronic Undergraduate Statistics Research Conference.

Growing Interest in Statistics

On October 2, 2015, approximately 40 students on campus watched the live stream of the first annual Electronic Undergraduate Statistics Research Conference sponsored by the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education (CAUSE). The section broadcasted was a talk by Dr. Benjamin Baumer, who is currently an Associate Professor of Statistics and Data Science at Smith College. Titled “In it to Win It,” the talk focused on his experiences as the former Statistical Analyst for Baseball Operations at the New York Mets.

Following the approval of a statistics concentration at Grinnell College, this talk is another example of students’ growing interest in the field. “I was surprised there were so many students participating in this talk,” said Ibuki Ogasawara ’17, a mathematics major. “Not only sports statistics but any applied stats field in general is such a growing field, I hope everyone is excited about having the statistics concentration available.”

Dr. Baumer stressed the importance of statistical analysis in running a sports team. He gave examples of how data can be used to answer crucial questions, such as how players will do in the future, when to trade players, and what the opposition’s tactics will be. Some of these topics could be potential topics for class projects for undergraduate students.

This talk also discussed careers in sports analytics. Baumer talked about the different positions in the Analytics Department of a sports team and the technical skills needed to succeed. He also talked about the benefits, challenges, and more practical parts of this career.

Some students found that this gave them insight on possible post-graduate options. “I’ve not decided whether or not I will apply for grad school or a job, but according to his talk it seems to be necessary to have a graduate degree in applied statistics or computer science if I want to work for a team or a company,” Ogasawara said. “I will definitely think about going to grad school if I decide to pursue a career as a statistician.”

Statistics Concentration

The use of statistical methods to acquire useful information and make decisions from data is becoming an indispensable skill in a wide variety of fields and careers. The Statistics concentration focuses on learning from data in the presence of uncertainty. While the concentration does require mathematical rigor, the major emphasis is on the application of statistical methods, quantitative reasoning, visualization, computation, and communication skills required when working with data from multiple disciplines.

Statistics and Society

Undergraduate research tends to evoke images of either a library or a laboratory. The Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) offers students in social studies and the humanities something different. The lab has computers with statistical analysis programs that can help students and faculty understand trends in data and visually represent data in charts and graphs and on maps.

Grinnellians Helping Grinnellians

DASIL helps students and faculty analyze and visualize data on an individual basis and brings data analysis into the classroom. It also provides experiential learning for student tutors. “We do the students a disservice unless we make sure they have some level of technological understanding,” says Kathy Kamp, professor of anthropology and Earl D. Strong Professor of Social Studies. DASIL is a unique program in that it is staffed by undergraduates.

“When we’re not helping students,” says Beau Bressler ’16, a DASIL staffer, “we’re working on projects for faculty — usually gathering or organizing data.”

Last year, DASIL launched an independent website that hosts a number of data visualizations. Most of the visualizations make use of publicly available — usually government-collected — information.

One of the projects DASIL is taking on is an interactive map tracking land-holding, using historical records, in three Iowa townships in Poweshiek and Jasper counties.

An earlier major project DASIL was involved in was English professor James Lee’s Global Renaissance, an analysis of 25,000 texts from 1470 to 1700 using data mining techniques to visualize the specific language Shakespeare's England employed to describe different races and places across the globe before colonialism.

Learning by Teaching

Bressler has worked at DASIL for more than a year. During his time there, he has assisted students and professors and has done his own research for a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP). As an economics major, he works primarily on econometrics problems. The students who work with DASIL are fairly specialized, says Julia Bauder, social studies and data services librarian. “We try to have a student fluent in geographical information systems, an economics major who has taken econometrics, a mathematics major, and at least one person doing qualitative research and able to use NVivo qualitative analysis software.”

“Sometimes people come and they know what they want to research and what they’re trying to do, but they don’t know the software or don’t know what variables to use,” says Bressler. “I plan on going into research, so being exposed to other students’ research prepares me to do a broader array of research.” In the spring semester, Bressler helped Ope Awe ’15 analyze data for a MAP to determine what factors in a developing country influence entrepreneurship.

“DASIL is a place you can come and learn to work with data,” says Bressler. “Working with people — especially when they’re other students who know how to work with data — can make statistics easier to understand.”

Beau Bressler ’16 is an economics major from San Diego, Calif.

Decoding Diversity

Lester Alemán ’07 became an advocate and a leader while a Posse Scholar at Grinnell College. He also worked as a program director for nearly four years at the Posse Foundation in Los Angeles. So it’s only fitting he had a chance showcase those skills while discussing the often controversial topic of diversity at the first-ever TEDxGrinnell event.

We talked with Lester about his TEDxGrinnell experience and time as a Grinnell student.  

What was it like giving a TEDxGrinnell talk?

Lester Alemen, left, talks to TEDx attendeesDelivering a TED Talk is, by far, one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my career. I’m honored that Grinnell College thought of me as someone who is a subject-matter expert in the field of diversity initiatives. My speech delivered a dose of obvious. But what’s more striking to me is that no matter how obvious diversity is in this country, we — as a nation— still resist it. I wrote my talk not only for the sociology majors of the country, but for people who need a reminder of what truly shapes this nation, and how we continuously perpetuate our lack of acceptance. “It’s not okay” somehow became my tag line. So when I think of how many people kept repeating that after my talk, I think I drove a message home. Now the work rests in the hands of those who listened.

Thinking back as a student, what is the most striking way you were affected by the culture shift from your home in Los Angeles to Grinnell?

Attending Grinnell College allowed me to understand the fabric of our social landscape. It also taught me to be very vocal and persuasive in the pursuit of social change. Going from an urban environment to a rural setting taught me to be adaptable. Those four years really shaped my vision for how I live my professional life.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would share with prospective Grinnellians?

The biggest piece of advice I can offer any prospective student is that Grinnell College is not the college for just anyone. Grinnell not only offers the unique opportunity to learn about the unique world we are all a part of, it offers the opportunity for you to truly become an agent of change. If change isn’t what you were made to do — then this isn’t the school for you. If change is what you live for, then welcome.

What’s the most important way Grinnell College assisted you in becoming the leader you are today?

There were caring adults who wanted nothing more than to see me thrive — and knew exactly how to help facilitate that growth. That was new for me. They taught me the most important thing a leader needs in this world: true and active compassion. 

  • Taking a course with Kesho Scott, associate professor of sociology and American studies, is a must for anyone that appreciates witty, insightful banter — the kind that gives you an eye-opening dose of what we are doing to each other in this world.
  • Karla Erickson, associate professor of sociology, taught me that only I could dictate my path and pushed me to make tough decisions as my major adviser.
  • Kara Lycke was a soundboard for the frustration I felt the more I learned about the injustices in our education system.
  • Judy Hunter had the patience to really teach me how to put my feelings and thoughts into words at the Writing Lab.
  • Katherine McClelland helped me overcome my fear of math so I could pass my statistics class.
  • The late Howard Burkle indulged all my life questions — and my appetite, I should add — as my Posse Mentor.
  • Charlie Duke gave my Posse a home away from home when Howard could no longer do that.

Alemán currently works at NBCUniversal in the Page Program, Talent Development Group.

Changing the Face of Science

Jessi L. Smith, a noted expert on social psychology, will deliver the Scholars' Convocation at noon Wednesday, April 1, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101. The lecture is free and open to the public with a free pizza lunch provided.

Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, has conducted extensive research on theories of stereotypes, with a focus on understanding the practices and policies that create equitable environments. At MSU, she chairs a 47-member team charged with enhancing faculty diversity and equity in order to foster learning among all faculty and students.

Smith's talk, titled "Changing the Face of Science: How to Create a More Diverse and Inclusive STEM Community," will feature Smith's work in experimental social psychological science. Smith will present her findings on the prevalent role of unintentional biases within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community, and discuss how to create more equitable environments in these fields.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations.

Finding Faculty Mentors

At Grinnell, finding professors who want to mentor you is easy. Working with smart, engaged students is what professors love.

So when Karen Shuman and Chris French, associate professors of mathematics and statistics, decided to offer a summer research project to first- and second-year students, they had more students apply than they could accept.

“We thought we’d try a Mentored Independent Project (MIP) that would give students a taste of research and the mathematical writing process,” Shuman says. “Our hope was that the experience would encourage students to continue to take mathematics and statistics courses and to apply for MAPs [Mentored Advanced Projects, available to second- and third-year students] and off-campus programs in subsequent summers.”

Shuman and French selected six students to participate in the MIP. All had completed linear algebra or beyond. Lizzie Eason ’17 and Caleb Leedy ’16 were interested in math but had never done research before and wanted to find out what it was like.

Rachel Knak ’17 saw the project as a way to “solidify my decision to become a math major.” 

The Benefits of Math Research

During the first two weeks of the five-week MIP, students spent six hours per day learning about graph theory and spectral theory. For the next two weeks, they explored their own projects, with guidance from Shuman and French. In the final week, students focused on writing up their results and giving mini presentations to each other.

“The best part of the MIP was I got to do whatever I wanted to do with math,” Knak says. “I needed help from Karen and Chris, but my work was a lot more original than most math classes.”

“I got to dig in deep to what numbers mean,” Eason says. “I had more creative freedom.”

“Now that I understand math research itself,” Leedy says, “the process isn’t so foreign. It’s been very interesting and rewarding.”

French notices quite a difference among math students who’ve done research. Shuman agrees. “These experiences do far more than a year of courses.”

Developing a Community of MIPsters

“There was an energy and enthusiasm I haven’t seen before,” Shuman says about the students who became known as the MIPsters. “That was partly because of the community they formed.”

Students talking and gesturing towards at a white boardFrench agrees. “Caleb Leedy did really nice work on a project involving writing computer code to compute certain characteristics of graphs. Rachel Knak, meanwhile, was doing a more theoretical examination of certain aspects of graphs. I got so excited when the two students joined forces, and Rachel realized her project could be advanced because of Caleb’s code. “

“You could hear the cheering in the corridor,” Shuman says.

It wasn’t just the MIPsters supporting each other, though.

“Karen and Chris were super supportive,” Eason says. “They pushed us enough to get to the answers ourselves and helped us figure out what to look for.”

“They attacked problems in different ways,” Knak says.

Even though Shuman and French are married, Shuman says, “We’d never done mathematics together before. We weren’t sure how it would work, but in the end, we decided we’d like to do more math together.”

Joining forces to help students grow intellectually — that’s something Grinnell does well.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is majoring in math and theatre and is from Lamoni, Iowa. Rachel Knak ’17 is majoring in math and religious studies and is from Burlington, Iowa. Caleb Leedy ’16 is majoring in math and economics and is from Maitland, Fla.

For the Love of Science

Before classes begin, the Grinnell Science Project (GSP) brings together selected students who are interested in science and creates a community that helps them feel comfortable with college life both inside and outside the classroom.

“GSP was a huge blessing. For one thing, the program got me a head start on understanding the confusing passageways of the mysterious Noyce Science Center. But it did so much more than that. I met a lot of people who shared my common interests, was acquainted with professors that I had class with later in my college career, and gained a lot of confidence in myself during GSP,” says Lizzie Eason ’17, who participated in the program last year.

GSP students meeting with a birdOne aspect of the program is a week-long pre-orientation  program.  Over the course of a week, students learn about the services and structures of the College.

The program responds to different learning styles — favoring workshop- and project-based classes in addition to lectures — and provides both role models and contexts for the study of science. “Grinnell students feel that they are part of a scientific community, we accommodate different learning styles with different pedagogical approaches, and we involve students in faculty research from the beginning of their experience here,” says Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry.

Faculty members discuss various aspects of Grinnell’s academic program and strategies for excelling in science and mathematics courses. The GSP students participate in both sample classes and a research project.

“It was nice to just get used to the college environment without having to stress about classes. I could take time to really make friends, get advice from professors, and just enjoy myself, which is something I don't think I would have had much time to do if I had come to Grinnell when classes began,” says Eason.

Students work together to solve a puzzleIn the early 1990s, Grinnell observed that students — especially women, first-generation college students, and students of color — would enter Grinnell intending to major in the sciences, then fail to do well in the introductory courses and choose a major in another division. With data gathered from students, the College discovered that environmental and socioeconomic factors were interfering with students’ academic success in the sciences.

GSP teaches science the way science is actually practiced. It also creates a peer as well as faculty and staff support network for students. In addition to GSP participants, lots of other students have benefitted from curricular changes that accompanied the Grinnell Science Project.

“One of the most significant measures of success is that components of the Grinnell Science Project are now mainstream throughout our science curriculum,” says Swartz. Grinnell’s introductory biology course, which is required for all biology and biological chemistry majors is project-based. Introductory computer science courses are designed similarly, and mathematics, chemistry, physics, and psychology courses use a number of active learning techniques.

In the three years before GSP began, an average of 42 women and eight students of color graduated with science degrees each year. By 2008, each number had more than doubled. Ninety women and 21 students of color graduated with science degrees that year. Hundreds of students have participated in GSP, and thousands more benefited from curricular changes and mentoring relationships established by the program.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is from Lamoni, Iowa and has not yet declared a major.

2014 GSP students, faculty, and staff

2014 Grinnell Science Project

Professor Marc Chamberland joins the editorial board for Math Horizons

Prof. Chamberland will be a member of the editorial board for the magazine Math Horizons from 2014-2018. Math Horizons, published four times a year, is a vibrant and accessible forum for mathematics, especially with students in mind. You can find issues of this magazine spread across the Math Commons.

Interested in a career in Actuarial Science?

Representatives from Nationwide Insurance will be on campus Tuesday, Sept 17 to discuss the actuarial profession and recruit for summer internships or careers. There will be a MASSS with the representatives, at noon in Noyce 2022 , and there will be individual meetings to talk to them in the afternoon. They will also have an all-campus presentation on the actuarial field at 4:15 PM in JRC 209.

You can learn more about careers through Nationwide here:
http://www.nationwide.com/about-us/careers.jsp

If you want to learn more about what actuaries due, check here:
http://beanactuary.com/