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#93 Twenty-one questions about USCOTS ’21

Registration for the 2021 U.S. Conference on Teaching Statistics (USCOTS) opens today.  I’m so excited about this that I will devote this blog post to answering 21 questions that you may have* about this conference**.

* You may not even have realized that you have these questions until you read them.

** I also wrote a bit about USCOTS in a meandering and autobiographical post #76, titled Strolling into serendipity, here.

1. Where can I register?  Follow the link here.

2. How much is the registration fee?  $25.  If this would constitute a hardship, you can receive a full waiver.

3. When is it?  The conference runs from June 28 – July 1.  Sessions will run from approximately 11:30am – 5:30pm Eastern time (U.S.) on each day.  Pre-conference workshops begin on June 24.

4. Where is it?  USCOTS will be held virtually for the first time this year, so it’s happening wherever you and your internet connection happen to be at the time.

5. Why should I attend USCOTS?  (Thanks for asking.  I really should have started there, shouldn’t I?)  Many statistics conferences include sessions on teaching, and many teaching conferences include sessions on statistics, but USCOTS is devoted entirely to the challenge of teaching statistics well.  If you teach statistics at the undergraduate or high school level, you will find sessions that are relevant to your everyday work in every time slot.  Our goal is for every session to include both practical advice and thought-provoking ideas, and also to present them in an engaging, perhaps even fun, manner.  If you’ve never attended USCOTS, we welcome you and hope that you’ll meet some new friends.  If you have attended USCOTS, we welcome you back to renew acquaintances.  We hope that you’ll be inspired to improve your teaching of statistics.

6. What is the conference theme?  Expanding opportunities.

7. Can you say more about that?  We encourage presenters and attendees to interpret this theme broadly, but we primarily have two questions in mind:

  • How can we (teachers of statistics and others involved with statistics education) increase participation and achievement in studying statistics by students from underrepresented groups?
  • How can we better encourage and support students and colleagues who are beginning or contemplating careers in statistics education?

8. What kind of sessions are planned?  Each of the four days will feature a keynote presentation and interactive breakout sessions.  We’ll also have “posters and beyond” presentations, “birds-of-a-feather” discussions, and exhibitor demonstration sessions.  New this year will be a speed mentoring session.  Another highlight will be an awards presentation ceremony.  Speaking of highlights, I almost forgot to mention my own favorite: Opening and closing sessions will feature lively five-minute presentations on the conference theme.  You can see the conference program here.

9. Who are some of the presenters?  The keynote speaker for Monday is Rebecca Nugent from Carnegie Mellon.  She will discuss how the emerging field of data science can expand opportunities for students who have been under-represented in statistics.  Tuesday’s keynote presentation will be a panel discussion about expanding horizons and fostering diversity, with panelists Felicia Simpson, Jacqueline Hughes-Oliver, Jamylle Carter, Prince Afriyie, and Samuel Echevarria-Cruz.  On Wednesday Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein will discuss theme from their book Data Feminism.  Alana Unfried from California State University – Monterey Bay will give Thursday’s keynote presentation.  She will discuss the advantages of a co-requisite model that enables students needing remediation to enter directly into an introductory statistics course.

10. What are some of the workshop topics?  These topics include community-engaged learning, data visualization, data science, Bayesian statistics, R tidyverse, games, multivariable thinking, and statistical literacy.  You can see the list of pre-conference workshops here.

11. How about some of the breakout session topics?  These topics include data science, social justice, gamification, communication skills, oral assessments, computational thinking, data visualization, community building, educational fun, and data ethics.  You can find the list of breakout sessions here.

12. What platforms will the conference use?  The primary platform will be zoom.  You can attend sessions simply by following zoom links.  We’ll make frequent use of breakout rooms, polls, and chat within zoom to increase engagement.  We will also use to replicate an in-person experience more closely.

13. Will the conference be interactive and engaging?  That’s our goal.  I think this is more challenging with a virtual conference than with an in-person one, but we’ll do our best.  Of course, interactivity and engagement depend on participants being willing* to interact and engage.

* I hope eager!

14. Can I still submit a proposal to present at the conference?  Yes.  Proposals for “posters and beyond” sessions are due by April 22 (here).  Proposals to lead a birds-of-a-feather discussion are due by May 31 (here).

15. How can I earn a free registration?  Participate in the SPARKS video challenge.  This asks for a very short (10-20 seconds) video clip that can be used in teaching statistics.  You can see examples and submit your entry here.

16. Do you have a social media hashtag in mind?  Yes, please use #USCOTS21.

17. Would you like me to spread the word to colleagues and friends?  Yes, absolutely!

18. Do I have to attend every minute of every session of the conference?  No.  (Whew, I’m glad to have a chance to introduce some variability to that long string of “yes” answers that I have been giving.)  Feel free to tune in when you can and step away when you need to.  As you would expect, I think it would be ideal if you can block out several hours of uninterrupted time for each day of the conference, but of course I realize that your circumstances may not allow that.

19. Can I see what has happened in previous USCOTS conferences?  I can resume my “yes” answers again.  See the links for “previous years” on the right side of the main conference page here.

20. Do you happen to have a one-minute video with a musical invitation to attend USCOTS that I could watch and point others to?  Yes*!  Thanks to the creativity and talents of Larry Lesser and Mary McLellan, please enjoy the video here.

* Wow, what a great question; it’s like you were reading my mind!

21. Please remind me: how can I register?  Just follow the link here.

#92 What can you do?

Teachers are often asked: What can you do with …?  For example, many students and prospective students have asked me: What can you do with a degree in statistics? 

I used to find it very challenging to answer this question well.  One reason is that I have never had a job other than college professor.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my job, and I would make the same choice again, without a second thought, if I were starting over.  But my career has not provided me with much first-hand experience for answering that question.

I eventually came up with an answer that I really liked.  I came to give this answer every time I heard the question.  I still give the same answer now.  In fact, I like this answer so much that I put it on the back of my business cards. 

My answer is:  There you can find  the alumni updates section of our department newsletter*.  I am referring to the Department of Statistics at Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo.  We have had a bachelor’s degree program in statistics since the mid-1970s, and we are very proud of our alums.

* You can also find previous editions of the newsletter here and here.

Why do I like this answer so much?  Let me count the ways:

  1. This answer relies on other people’s words, not mine.  Because I do not have much relevant first-hand experience for addressing this question, I am very happy to refer to others’ experiences.
  2. These people have an undergraduate degree in statistics and are out in the “real world.” Most are outside of academia, applying what they’ve learned.
  3. Our alums have experienced diverse work experiences.  Many work very closely with data and statistics on a daily basis, but others’ careers are only tangentially related to data, if at all.  Some are not using their academic background in statistics at all, which I think is valuable for demonstrating that what you study as an undergraduate does not dictate what you have to do with the rest of your life.
  4. Needless to say, these are real people with real lives, including families and hobbies and interests that are not related to statistics at all.  I think it’s nice for current and prospective students to see that these folks have families, weddings (some to fellow alums of our program), children, pets, hobbies, (pre-pandemic) travel adventures, and more.
  5. This answer fits on the back of a business card.

Communicating with our alums to solicit these updates was one of my favorite tasks when I recently served as department chair for six years.  In fact, I enjoyed this activity so much that I volunteered to continue after I completed my terms from my chair.  I am very proud that so many of our alums take the time to respond with an update; 73 responded for the most recent edition, and even more replied for the two previous editions.

A big part of my enjoyment is that I taught many of these students, so of course it’s fun for me to hear from them and learn about what they’re up to, both professionally and personally.  I realize that you do not know these Cal Poly alums personally*, but I’m hoping that you might enjoy reading about the kinds of careers that people with undergraduate degrees in statistics can pursue.  I will provide a brief summary in this post, but I highly recommend that you follow the links above to read their words directly for yourself**.

* Unless you are one of my Cal Poly colleagues, or perhaps even one of the Cal Poly alums who contributed an update

** You’ll find that the updates are spread across many pages, arranged by graduating class year.  Click on links at the bottom of the pages to see more updates.

Many of the job titles for these alums include the terms data scientist or data analyst.  Some other terms include data quality analyst, research analyst, risk consultant, actuary, software engineer, SAS programmer, or R programmer.

The industries in which these alumni work run the gamut, including banking, insurance, financial services, health care, fashion, marketing, medicine, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, social media, gaming, entertainment, education, and more.

Some alums are pursuing or have completed graduate degrees, in fields such as statistics, biostatistics, public health, data science, business analytics, computer science, computational science, psychology, and education.

A few of the alums almost apologize for not using statistical methods in their daily work.  But they generally say that learning how to think about data and solve problems has served them well.  For example, Alex wrote that our year-long sequence in mathematical statistics “taught me to think ‘why’ instead of just ‘how.’”  Cisco contributed that “the most important thing that I learned from statistics and still use is the thought process to take big generic problems and turn them into manageable steps toward improvement.”

That summary was brief, as promised, but very dry.  Like I said, I’d prefer that you read the alums’ words rather than mine (again, here and here and here). Rather than delete my dry summary, let me instead try to add some life by highlighting a few specific updates. I hope these might help to persuade you to read them all :

  1. Maddie works as a financial data analyst for a solar energy company during the week.  On weekends she works at a residential care facility for adolescent girls with anxiety disorders.
  2. Jianyi started by working for a non-profit organization while launching her own cake-baking business.  Now she works as a production manager and data analyst for a company that designs lighting accessories.
  3. Alicia taught at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento and now teaches statistics and calculus at Sacramento State University.  She also writes and performs comedy sketches, is writing a screenplay, and writes a blog here.
  4. Upneet moved to a city in which probability plays a large role in the economy: Las Vegas.  She works as an analyst at the Venetian/Palazzo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
  5. Caiti has held positions as a data scientist for two companies that I suspect you have heard of: The Gap, Inc. and Google.
  6. David started his career as an engineer for Disney.  Now he is co-founder of an e-sports social media start-up company.
  7. Hunter earned his Ph.D. in Statistics and returned to Cal Poly as a faculty member in our department.  He has recently earned tenure, and he has also co-authored a blog on teaching data science (here).
  8. Chris heads up the data effort for a video game start-up company in Berlin.  He has helped the video game industry to become more data-driven, implementing more sophisticated methods and technologies.
  9. Emily taught AP Statistics for a decade before becoming Mathematics Coordinator for the Merced County Office of Education.  One of her initiatives involves developing a data science course to offer high school students an additional mathematics pathway to college readiness*.
  10. Kendall also taught AP Statistics for a decade, until he recently bought a coffee farm on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he also works on a dive boat.

* This is far from her most impressive accomplishment, but Emily wrote a guest post for this blog (here).

What can you do with a degree in statistics?  The American Statistical Association has some great materials for answering this question, including their This is Statistics project (see here and here).

For students attending or considering Cal Poly, I like my answer of pointing them to alumni updates (once again, for the final time, see here and here and here).  I hope that this answer might also be a reasonable one for you to offer to your students.  Even better, you could reach out to your own former students and compile their updates.

I have greatly enjoyed using our department newsletter as a vehicle for keeping in touch with alums.  I focus a lot of my teaching effort on preparing handouts and activities, developing and grading assessments*.  These alumni updates provide me with a reminder that the most important part of teaching is helping students to learn and prepare for their careers and lives.

* Remember: Ask good questions.

Because this post has extolled the virtues of reading words other than my own, I will conclude with advice and encouragement from Jose, who graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in Statistics in 1993: Think about what’s fulfilling for the soul and not the bank account….  These are exciting times for statisticians and anyone analytically inclined. Predicting the future with confidence and with limited data was never more important and exciting.