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#76 Strolling into serendipity

This post is going to meander.  I’ll get to the point right away, but then I’m going to take a long detour before I return to the point.

The point of this post is to let you know about the 2021 U.S. Conference on Teaching Statistics (USCOTS), encourage you to attend and participate in this conference, and urge you to help with spreading the word.  The conference theme is Expanding Opportunities.  It will be held virtually on June 28 – July 1, with pre-conference workshops beginning on June 24.  The conference sessions will be thought-provoking, directly relevant to teaching statistics, and fun!  See the conference website here for more information.

Now I’m going to indulge in a stroll down memory lane before I return to the point.  If you’re in a hurry or don’t feel like accompanying me on this journey, I understand completely and encourage to skip ahead past the next several sections.  You can search for “And then 2020 happened” to find the spot where I conclude my reminiscences and return to discussing the 2021 USCOTS.

I like conferences.  Even though I’m an introvert who feels much more comfortable in a small town than in a big city, I have greatly enjoyed and learned a lot from attending conferences across the country and around the world.  The best part has been meeting, learning from, and befriending people with similar professional goals and interests.

My first conference was the Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) held in San Francisco in 1991.  I had never been to San Francisco, and I had only been to California when I was nine years old.  I was in my second year of teaching at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.  I roomed with my good friend from graduate school Tom Short, who was on the academic job market.  We walked around the city, taking in the sights and remarking that San Francisco is an even hillier city to walk than Pittsburgh, where we had attended Carnegie Mellon University together.  A conference highlight for me was attending a presentation by Tom Moore, whom I had never met.  Tom had written an article with Rosemary Roberts, titled “Statistics at Liberal Arts Colleges” (here), which had inspired me as I finished graduate school and before I started teaching at Dickinson.  I also gave a presentation at the conference, titled “Using HyperCard to teach statistics.”  I remember being extremely nervous before my presentation.  As I refresh my memory by checking the conference program here, I am surprised at not remembering that my presentation was apparently given at 7:05 on a Saturday morning!*

Another memorable conference from early in my career was the ASA’s 1992 Winter Conference, held in Louisville, Kentucky.  I was amazed and delighted to find an entire conference devoted to the theme of Teaching Statistics.  By this time Tom Short was teaching at Villanova University, so he and I drove to Louisville together.  I gave my first conference talk about an early version of Workshop Statistics.  Two presentations had a huge impact on my teaching and stand out in my mind to this day.  Bob Wardrop described his highly innovative introductory course that reimagined the sequencing of topics by using simulation-based inference to present topics of statistical inference from the beginning of the course.   Joan Garfield gave the plenary address, invited and introduced by David Moore, on educational research findings about how students learn statistics.  Joan later wrote an article based on this presentation titled “How Students Learn Statistics” (available here), the general principles of which hold up very well more than 25 years later.

Returning to San Francisco for the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) in 1993, I met and chatted with Jeff Witmer, convener of the “isolated statisticians” group and editor of Stats magazine, to which I had recently submitted an article.  I also interacted with Robin Lock for the first time at that conference; he and I have presented in the same sessions of conferences, sometimes with a joint presentation, many times over the years.  The 1993 JSM was also the occasion in which I met a graduate student from Cornell University who was studying both statistics and education, and who had a perfect name for a statistics teacher*.

* Of course, I had no clue at the time that Beth Chance and I would write articles and textbooks together, give conference presentations and conduct workshops together, coordinate the grading of AP Statistics exams, become colleagues in the same department, and eat ice cream together more times than I could count.

In 1994 I traveled outside of North America for the first time, to attend the International Conference on Teaching Statistics (ICOTS) in Marrakech.  Despite tremendously troublesome travel travails*, I greatly enjoyed the exotic locale and the eye-opening experience of meeting and hearing from statistics teachers and education researchers from around the world.  I gave another presentation about Workshop Statistics.  Some specific memories include George Cobb’s talk about workshops for mathematicians who teach statistics and Dick Scheaffer’s presentation about Activity-Based Statistics.

* Try saying (or typing) that ten times fast.

Oh dear, I really could keep writing a full paragraph (or more) about every conference that I’ve attended over the past thirty years.  But I need to remember that I’m writing a blog post, not a memoir.  I hope I’ve made my point that I benefitted greatly from attending and presenting at conferences as I embarked on my career as a teacher of statistics.  Especially for a small-town introvert, these conferences greatly expanded my horizons.  I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful that some of the people I met at these conferences, whose work I admired and had a big impact on me, went on to become lifelong friends and valued collaborators.

I hasten to add that I have continued to enjoy and benefit from conferences throughout my career.  Since 1995, the only JSM that I have missed was in 2016 due to illness.  It took me a few months to recover from my surgery that year, and I considered myself fully recovered when I was able to attend the AMATYC conference in Denver in November of 2016.  I remember feeling very happy to be well enough to walk around a conference hotel and be able to participate in a conference again.  I also recall feeling somewhat silly to consider conference attendance as an important marker of my recovery.

As I continue this stroll down memory lane, I now turn toward USCOTS.  I have attended all eight USCOTS conferences*, which have been held in odd-numbered years since 2005, and I have come to regard USCOTS as my favorite conference. 

* I realize that the word “conference” here is redundant with the C in USCOTS, but I fear that “USCOTSes” looks and sounds ridiculous.

The organizers of the first USCOTS, Dennis Pearl and Deb Rumsey and Jack Miller, did a terrific job of establishing a very welcoming and supportive environment.  Conference sessions were designed to engage participants, and the conference provided provide many opportunities for interaction among attendees, outside of sessions as well as during them.

The inaugural USCOTS in 2005 was the most influential conference my career.  The lineup of plenary speakers was star-studded: Dick Scheaffer and Ann Watkins, Roxy Peck, Cliff Konold, Robin Lock and Roger Woodard, and George Cobb (see the program here).  Roxy’s talk was memorable not only for its enticing title (How did teaching introductory statistics get to be so complicated?) but also for the insights about teaching statistics that Roxy garnered from a famous video of a selective attention test (here).  George’s banquet presentation at this conference, which also featured a provocative title* (Introductory statistics: A saber tooth curriculum?), has achieved legendary status for inspiring a generation of statistics teachers to pursue simulation-based inference**. 

* Of course, I admire that both of these titles ask good questions.

** See here for a journal article that George wrote, based on this presentation, in which he subtly revised to title to ask: A Ptolemaic curriculum?

The next three USCOTS were also very engaging and informative.  I will mention just one highlight from each:

  • In 2007 Dick De Veaux gave a terrific banquet presentation, titled “Math is music; statistics is literature,” that was almost the equal of George’s for its cleverness and thought-provoking-ness. 
  • Chris Wild inspired us in 2009, and provided a glimpse of even more impressive things to come, with his demonstration of dynamic software that introduces young students to statistics, and excited them about the topic, through data visualization. 
  • Rob Gould challenged us in 2011 to think about how best to prepare students to be “citizen statisticians,” arguing that they come to our classes having already experienced immersive experiences with data.

My point here is that USCOTS was designed from the outset as a very engaging and interactive conference, ideal for statistics teachers looking to meet like-minded peers and exchange ideas for improving their teaching.

Following the 2011 USCOTS, I was quite surprised and honored when Deb and Dennis asked me to take on the role of USCOTS program chair.  I have now served in this capacity for four conferences, from 2013 – 2019.  I have tried to maintain the distinctive features that make USCOTS so valuable and worthwhile.  My primary addition to the program has been a series of five-minute talks that comprise opening and closing sessions.  I have been thrilled that so many top-notch statistics educators have accepted my invitations to give these presentations.

If you’ve never given a five-minute presentation, let me assure you that it can be very challenging and nerve-wracking.  Condensing all that you want to say into five minutes forces you to focus on a single message and also to organize your thoughts to communicate that message in the brief time allotted.  

For my first year as program chair in 2013, I went so far as to insist on the “Ignite” format that requires each presenter use 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds.  I have loosened this restriction in subsequent years.  The opening five-minute talks have launched the conferences with energy and fun.  They have generating thought-provoking discussions among attendees.  The closing talks have recapped the conference experience and inspired participants to depart with enthusiasm for implementing some of what they’ve learned with their own students*. 

* You can find slides and recordings for these five-minute talks, along with other conference presentations and materials, by going here, clicking on “years” on the right side, going to the year of interest, then clicking on “program,” and finally clicking on the session link within the program page.  As you peruse the lists of presenters for an opening or closing session, you may notice that I like to arrange the order of presentation alphabetically by first name.

My point in this section is that since I have been entrusted with the keys to the USCOTS program, I have tried to maintain USCOTS as welcoming, engaging, and valuable conference.  Serving as program chair for the past four incarnations of USCOTS has provided me with considerable helpings of both professional pride and enjoyment.

After the 2019 USCOTS, I decided to pass the program chair baton to someone of the next generation who would infuse the conference with new ideas and vitality.

I asked Kelly McConville to take on this role.  Even though Kelly is early in her career as a statistics professor*, she already has considerable experience as a successful program chair.  She has served as program chair for ASA’s Statistics and Data Science Education section at JSM, for the Electronic Undergraduate Statistics Research Conference, and for the Symposium on Data Science and Statistics (see here).  Kelly has attended several USCOTS conferences and gave one of the five-minute talks at the closing session for USCOTS in 2017.

* Congratulations are in order, because Kelly was informed just last week that she has earned tenure in her faculty position at Reed College.

Kelly replied by asking if I would consider co-chairing USCOTS with her in 2021, and I happily agreed.

And then 2020 happened*.

* There’s obviously no need for me to describe how horrible 2020 has been in myriad ways.  But I can’t resist noting that a vaccine has been developed, tested, and approved in less than one year.  This is an incredible achievement, one in which the field of statistics has played an important role. The vaccine is being administered for the first time in the U.S. (outside of trials) on the day that this post appears.

The pandemic required Dennis (who continues to serve as director of CAUSE, the organization that puts on USCOTS) and Kelly and me to decide whether to plan for an in-person, virtual, or hybrid USCOTS.  Spurred on by Camille Fairbourne, Michigan State University had agreed to host USCOTS in late June of 2021.  In August of 2020, we asked statistics teachers to answer survey questions about planning for USCOTS.  Among 372 responses, 50.3% recommended a virtual conference and only 11.8% recommended in-person, with the remaining 37.9% preferring a hybrid.  Mindful of drastic cuts to many schools’ budgets as well as continuing uncertainty about public health, we made the difficult decision to forego an in-person conference and hold USCOTS virtually.

We quickly selected a conference theme: Expanding Opportunities.  Aspects of this timely theme that conference sessions will explore include:

  • How can we increase participation and achievement in the study of statistics by students from under-represented groups?
    • What classroom practices can help with this goal?
    • How can curriculum design increase such participation and achievement?
    • What role can extra-curricular programs play?
    • How can remote learning and new technologies help?
    • How can we collaborate more effectively with colleagues and students in other disciplines to achieve this goal?
  • How can we support and encourage students and colleagues who are beginning, or contemplating, careers in statistics education?
  • Can the emerging discipline of data science help to democratize opportunities for students from under-represented groups?
  • What does educational research reveal about the effectiveness of efforts to expand opportunities?

The conference will feature thought-provoking plenary sessions, interactive breakout sessions, informative posters-and-beyond sessions, and opening and closing sessions with inspiring and lively five-minute presentations. Other highlights include birds-of-a-feather discussions, a speed mentoring session, an awards ceremony*, extensive pre-conference workshops, and sponsor technology demonstrations.

* The USCOTS Lifetime Achievement Award has been renamed the George Cobb Lifetime Achievement Award in Statistics Education, in honor of George, the first recipient of the USCOTS Award, who passed away on May 6, 2020.

One of the plenary sessions will be a panel discussion about fostering diversity in our discipline.  Kelly and I plan to ask the panelists questions such as:

  • What are some barriers to pursuing study of statistics, and succeeding in study of statistics, for students from under-represented groups?
  • What are some strategies for eliminating barriers and expanding opportunities for students from under-represented groups in the following areas?
    • Recruitment
    • Curriculum
    • Individual courses
    • Program/department culture
    • Other?
  • How (if at all) does the emerging discipline of data science offer potential solutions for expanding opportunities and fostering diversity?
  • What are some strategies for encouraging and supporting people from diverse backgrounds to pursue and succeed in careers as statistics teachers and statistics education researchers?

We are determined to reproduce the welcoming, engaging, interactive, and fun aspects of USCOTS as much as possible in a virtual setting.  We also hope that the virtual format will encourage participation from statistics teachers who might not have invested as much time as it takes to travel to an in-person conference.

One of my favorite words is serendipity.  I like the definition from Google’s dictionary almost as much as the word itself: the occurrence or development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.  The benefits that I gained from attending conferences early in my career resulted from chance encounters more than from planned meetings.  Serendipity is one of the best aspects of any conference*. 

* Heck, serendipity is one of the best things in life.  Sadly, serendipity has also been one of the biggest casualties of the pandemic.

By definition, serendipity is impossible to plan in advance.  Serendipity is especially challenging to arrange with a virtual conference that people can attend without leaving their homes.  But we’re going to do everything we can to infuse the 2021 USCOTS with opportunities for serendipity, and we welcome suggestions about how to create such opportunities.  I hope that all USCOTS participants in 2021 make new acquaintances and renew friendships with colleagues who are united by a common desire to teach statistics effectively to the next generation of citizens and scholars.

How can you help?  First, mark the dates June 28 – July 1, 2021 on your calendar and plan to attend USCOTS.  Second, consider submitting a proposal to conduct a workshop, lead a breakout session, present a virtual poster, or facilitate a birds-of-a-feather discussion.  Third, please let others know about USCOTS and encourage them to participate.  Spreading the word broadly can expand opportunities to participate in USCOTS, where we can share ideas about expanding opportunities for others to engage in our profession. 

Once again, more information is available at the conference website here.

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