Complete a Class Project, Claim National Awards

November 21, 2019

Philip Le ’22

Just before the end of the course, students in Statistics 310 and 309 — courses about statistical modeling and design and analysis of experiments respectively — are encouraged to submit their research projects to national competitions such as the Undergraduate Class Project Competition (USCLAP) or the Undergraduate Statistics Project Competition (USPROC). From 2014 to 2019, Grinnellians have appeared an impressive 29 times on the awards lists.

What’s the secret here?

It’s Never Just Statistics

One of the key ingredients for this success is diversity: The statistics concentration at Grinnell offers a wide array of courses for students to try out.

There are introductory-level courses like SST 115 or STA 209. There are advanced mathematical statistics courses like STA 335 and STA 336. There are also courses like STA 230 that focus on applications in data science.

This variety has attracted students in different majors such as economics, psychology, and sociology. “More than 50% of the students in these courses have majors other than math and computer science,” says Jeff Jonkman, associate professor of mathematics and statistics and chair of the statistics concentration.

“I enjoy the diversity of interests students bring to the classroom,” says Shonda Kuiper, professor of mathematics and statistics. “For example, Grinnell students have chosen to analyze discriminatory patterns in police stop and arrest data, longitudinal surveys on Brexit, stain removal, voter registration, recidivism rates, Kickstarter campaigns, fighting homelessness, patterns in global terrorism as well as a wide variety of marketing and sports analytics.”

Getting Hands-on Experience in Class

Two students work at a computer together while Professor Shonda Kuiper observes
Students work together in a statistics class with Professor Shonda Kuiper

Every class comprises a good mix of lectures and lab activities that build up the knowledge for the final research project. “Early in each course, we give students datasets and provide guided steps to help them analyze it; later student groups find their own dataset based upon their own interests and then work together to determine the best approach to analyzing it and drawing appropriate conclusions,” Jonkman says.

However, statistical content is not the only thing that matters in these courses. “Students need to prove that they are competent to not only collect and analyze the data, but also to communicate their results to people with limited background in statistics,” Kuiper says.

And what’s a better way to practice than participating in competitions? “We often encourage our students to submit their projects to USCLAP and USPROC by mirroring the competition requirements for the papers required for their final class projects,” Jonkman says.

“The combination of learning advanced statistics, doing research, and coding is certainly a challenge for many,” acknowledges Jonkman.

“But here everyone is willing to help each other,” Kuiper says. Both professors agree that they also learn a lot from their students.

Get to Grips with Real-World Problems


Jarren Santos holding his laptop
Jarren Santos '17 earned a concentration in statistics that he's put to good use

Jarren Santos ’17, a general science major (emphasis in biology) with a concentration in statistics, participated in USCLAP twice during his time as an undergraduate student. He won first place in spring 2017 with a study on drinking water quality and treatment of water supply (pdf) and third place in fall 2016 with a study on Iowa prisoners’ recidivism (pdf).

The statistics concentration gave him the opportunity to work on interdisciplinary subjects and develop critical thinking. “Sometimes, it’s crazy to think how there are advanced 300-level classes where people from different majors can sit down together and collaborate on research projects about metropolitan problems,” he says.

For Santos, who now works as a data scientist for Grinnell’s Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL), it all comes down to the practicality packaged in these courses. “Among the statistics classes I took, STA 310 is my favorite because it’s embedded with project-based learning that prepared me for the workload out there,” he says.


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