Nagambal Shah, Professor of Mathematics, Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia


Chance is a course designed to teach fundamental ideas of statistics and probability through real-world problems that affect students’ everyday lives. The course was designed to replace a required Quantitative Reasoning course in the Honors program at Spelman College, which is a historically black college for women. The Chance course evolved from a multi-institutional Chance Project developed by J. Laurie Snell of Dartmouth College and funded by the National Science Foundation. It is organized around case-studies drawn from current events reported in daily newspapers and other news media.

Students enrolled in this course learn that a basic command of probability and statistics is essential for being able to critically analyze and form opinions about many of the issues that will confront them as citizens. Guest lectures from political and civic leaders, class discussions, computer simulations, and data manipulation activities, allow students explore such topics as polling, decision-making, and voting systems, and gain basic skills in statistical analysis and the mathematics of probability.

Throughout the semester students are asked to use their new skills by developing Chance journals, where they collect articles from technical journals and popular media and analyze how mathematical and statistical material is used, or misused, to support the article’s conclusions. Journal entries are collected intermittently and used as material for group discussions. Students also submit short research papers on the statistical or mathematical aspects of issues of contemporary significance, such as breast cancer, gun control, HIV/AIDS, or political polls.

The final class project is a public “Chance Fair,” where students develop poster presentations of individual research that explores the statistical questions and problems surrounding a pressing contemporary issue that has particular relevance to them. Examples of past Chance Fair research project topics include the incidence of rape, drunk driving, global population growth, suicide, anorexia, and domestic abuse.

Learning Goals

For more information, see the Chance Web site.


  • Statistics: The science of data
    • Producing data
    • Exploring data
    • Probability: The mathematics of chance
    • Statistical inference
  • Video segments from “Statistics: Decisions through data,” COMAP will be augmented
  • The digital revolution or digital divide?
  • Identification numbers
  • Transmitting information
  • From beepers to cell phones and the Internet/Web world
  • Social choice and decision making
  • Social choice: The impossible dream
  • Weighted voting systems
  • Electing the President
  • Modeling in mathematics (open topic)

Linking Mathematics and Social Issues

What basic science is covered and how is it linked to public policy?

CHANCE is a course designed to teach fundamental ideas of statistics and probability in the light of real world problems. In all parts of the country faculty are changing how they teach Science, Engineering and Mathematics (SEM) courses. Students’ attitudes and behavior toward quantitative literacy have led to increasing focus on students’ learning styles and have encouraged funding agencies to increase budget allocations for Mathematics education initiatives. Internet driven learning environments bring instantaneous access to information, changing the way we teach and learn.

This CHANCE course is an offspring of the Chance Project (Principal Investigator: J. Laurie Snell, Professor Emeritus, Dartmouth College-see CHANCE Web Site on following page) funded by the National Science Foundation to develop instructional materials for courses that use the idea of Chance to teach quantitative reasoning. At Spelman College the CHANCE course was taught in the place of Honors Quantitative Reasoning Course (Mathematics 193), a required course for students enrolled in the Honors Program who are not science majors. It is a case-study course based upon current events reported in daily newspapers and other news media and journals such as Science, of Chance and Nature.

Students enrolled in this course will learn that with a basic command of probability and statistics they can think critically for themselves about issues that confront citizens. By keeping abreast of day to day issues and challenges they will be able to become active participants in the effort to bring positive changes in the nation and the world at large. Thus the course rationale is consistent with the college’s’ mission to promote academic excellence in the liberal arts and to develop the intellectual, ethical and leadership potential of students by empowering the total person, one who appreciates the many cultures of the world and commits to positive social change. Hence Chance is an appropriate SENCER model.

The Course

Course Syllabus

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Course Format

Worldwide economic, political, social and cultural forces are making it ever more important that students learn to reason, interpret and articulate quantitatively. Yet in United States quantitative literacy is still an un-addressed issue nationally. Students enrolled in the CHANCE course learn the quantitative reasoning skills that they will need to understand today’s world and tomorrow’s.

As statistics continue to grow as a subject of importance to the general public, CHANCE students, through discussion of problems and issues of public concern, will learn the relevance of statistical ideas in public policy. Statistics is the science of extracting information from data and it is well connected with probability and mathematics, yet it is interdisciplinary in nature. The course involves extensive reading and discussion of
current news from newspaper, journal articles and internet sites, and utilizes the Chance Database. Guest speakers and video strips, writing assignments, computer simulation and data manipulation activities, and student projects.

This course differs from traditional mathematics courses in content and organization. The class meetings will emphasize group discussion rather than traditional lecture format.

Pedagogical Methodologies

In conjunction with standard teaching and assessment tools, CHANCE uses the following innovative learning strategies:


Each student will keep a journal for the course. The Journal notebook will consist of 3 distinct parts. The first part is vocabulary list (from textbook and readings) and the third part is the homework /study notes from textbook. The middle part, the “Journal” part, is what is meant by the unqualified word journal. Journal assignments are rather open – ended and student has considerable latitude in deciding what goes into the journal- Discussion of current news through mathematical looking glass and Journal entry.

Journal should be kept on loose- leaf paper in a 3-ring binder, entries dated and pages numbered. Articles read can be taped/stapled to the page (with reference clearly cited) following related discussion and questions/answers for discussion in class. Each entry should be approximately one page in length (more is fine, less is not) dated and titled. There should be a journal entry for each class period. Write student name on each page in the upper right hand corner. Each day we will pick one or two student journal entries for class discussion. Journal will be collected and read periodically. Some suggested sources: Chance News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times, USA Today, Science, Nature, and Internet.

Guest Speakers **

Previously explored topics through Guest Speakers (some video taped)
Violence, an epidemic (Project Gun Stop)
Statistics and the Business world
Breast Cancer
Statistics behind the Television
Battered Women

** Majority of the speakers have been Spelman Alumnae (some former students of Nagambal Shah) currently professional/civic leaders in the area.

Evaluating Learning

Short Papers

Each paper is three to four page long on matters of public interest/consequence with some statistical information. Papers should be doubled spaced. Be sure to include title page with your name, due date and the title of the paper. List all reference and source material used. The paper should be turned in at the beginning of the class period on the due date.

CHANCE Fair (Final Project)

There will not be a final exam for the course. In its place student will undertake a major research project. The course will conclude with a Chance Fair where the student will do a poster presentation of the Final project to the class. The fair will be held during the last week of the class. The research paper pertaining to the Chance Fair project is due the day of the final exam as set by the college calendar.

Examples of some Chance Fair Project Topics:

  • Rape-Violation of Body and Soul
  • Drinking and Driving-It Hurts Everybody!
  • Death Penalty and Proportionality Review
  • Anorexia
  • Depression
  • World Over- Population-Problems and Discussions
  • Separate Society-Racial Conflict in U.S.
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Suicide–A U.S. Epidemic

Background and Context


Nagambal Shah
Professor of Mathematics
Spelman College
Atlanta, GA 30314
(404) 223-7625
(404) 223-7662 (fax)