Introductory Statistics with Community-Based Projects

Cindy Kaus, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Metropolitan State University

A 2008 SENCER Model

Introductory Statistics with Community-Based Projects Cover

By incorporating semester long community-based projects into an introductory statistics course, Metropolitan State University aims to connect the discipline of statistics to issues of immediate concern to students and to increase appreciation of how this powerful quantitative tool can improve their ability to make informed decisions in their professional, civic, and personal lives. Statistics I is a general education math course required for majors in mathematics, business, biology, social work and nursing. However, students majoring in many other disciplines regularly take the course to meet their general education requirement so that the course engages a very diverse group of learners whose strengths contribute to the group project format.

Key statistics concepts, such as probability, regression, distributions, outliers, correlation and statistical significance, are taught “through” issues of civic importance, such as voting results, the death penalty, drug use, or unemployment. Lectures are combined with in-class group work, in-class discussion projects and a semester long community-based group project on a topic of the students’ choice. Recent group projects have investigated the relationship of unemployment to housing foreclosures in the county, a comparison between the price of prescription drugs in local pharmacies and the price of drugs obtained on-line from Canada, and the correlation between actual mercury contamination in the Twin Cities area and Fish Consumption Advisories from the state department of natural resources. Though the course has only been taught since 2007, some students have already attributed their success in obtaining jobs to the projects they completed in this course, and assessment data suggests substantial gains in students’ confidence and their ability to understand statistics and its applications.

Course Learning Goals for Instructors and Students

Instructor Goals:

Instructor will teach students to:

  • Understand and apply the principles and methods of statistics used in the description and analysis of data, including collection of data, design of experiments, sampling, correlation, regression, confidence intervals, and significance tests
  • Recognize the relevance of mathematics and statistics to problem-solving and decision-making in their every-day lives

Student Goals:

Student should be able to:

  • Read, understand, and evaluate statistical presentations in the media
  • Think critically about social issues
  • Increase their awareness that statistics and mathematics are useful tools for understanding complex social issues
  • Determine what is reliable data and to look at statistical studies critically

To achieve these goals, the course was developed so that students could choose the topic of their group projects based on their own interests. In addition, daily in class group projects and discussion projects were carefully chosen to highlight civic issues. Students were encouraged to read their free online New York Timeson a daily basis and to present articles at the beginning of each class that involved statistics. The theme of social awareness was begun on the first day of class and carried on throughout the semester.

Linking Mathematics and Social Issues

How Introductory Statistics with Community-Based ProjectsLinks Statistics and Social Issues

Throughout the semester the concepts taught in statistics were linked to social issues through lecture examples, in-class group work, in-class discussion projects and their semester long community-based projects. Through these methods many different social issues, such as voting results, the death penalty and illegal drug use, are addressed along with statistical concepts, such as outliers, correlation and statistical significance, which aid in the understanding of those issues.

The social issues that students investigate in their community-based projects are connected to the students’ personal interests. On the first day of class the concept of the community-based projects is introduced and the rest of the class period is used to brainstorm a list of possible topics for the projects. By the second class, the instructor has narrowed the list of possible topics based on feasibility and presents that list to the students. The students then choose their top five preferences for topics. Groups are formed by the instructor based on the students’ preferences for topic and also based on any partner preferences. However, since this is only the second class meeting, many students do not know other students in the class and the groups are solely based on topic preference. In some cases, multiple groups worked on the same topic for their projects.

In the group projects, students are required to include concepts from statistics at all four of the following levels:

Level Concepts
  • Organizing data in tables and graphs which include frequency tables, histograms, bar graphs and pie charts
  • Describing distributions using mean, median, mode, quartiles, standard deviation
  • Indicating outliers and their effects on the distribution
  • Simple random samples, stratified random samples, convenience samples, quotas
  • Describing populations and samples
  • Percentages
  • Normal distributions
  • Z-scores
  • Scatter plots
  • Correlation
  • Linear regression
  • Probability and probability distributions
  • Random variables
  • Expected value and standard deviation
  • Confidence intervals
  • Margin of error
  • Hypothesis testing
  • Statistical significance

Sample List of Topics Chosen by Students in the Spring and Fall Semesters of 2007

Crossing the Border: Online Drugs from Canada
Purpose: To investigate the difference in prescription drug prices between online pharmacies in the United States and Canada. A case study was performed for a 68 year old retired man from Blaine, Minnesota. The man lives on a fixed income and currently takes ten commonly prescribed medications. A simple random sample of online pharmacies from each country was selected and a comparison of the prices was done.

Mercury in Minnesota Lakes and Fish Consumption Advisories
Purpose: To investigate mercury contamination in lakes within the Twin Cities metro area. Data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was analyzed and summarized in a report.

Crime Rates per Capita Related to 2 Bedroom 1 Bath Rental Properties in Minneapolis
Purpose: To investigate the relationship between apartment rental rates and crime rates in twelve communities of Minneapolis Minnesota.

Unemployment on the State and National Level
Purpose: To investigate the unemployment trends within the state of Minnesota and the United States over the past 20 years. The relationship between unemployment rates, race and educational attainment are examined.

The Uninsured in the State of Minnesota
Purpose: To examine the characteristics of the citizens of Minnesota without health insurance. The characteristics that were examined were race, age, employment status, level of education, and income.

Domestic Abuse: Gender, Race and Language
Purpose: To identify characteristics of perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse in Minneapolis in order to gain a better understanding of this crime in the community. The characteristics examined were race, gender, whether or not perpetrators/victims understood English and were allowed an interpreter, type of crime alleged, type of proceeding and the relationship between the abuser and the victim.

Housing Foreclosures in Ramsey County
Purpose: To investigate the relationship between housing foreclosures in Ramsey County and unemployment rates, sub-prime loan rates and housing costs.

The Course

A major priority in the design of this course is the engagement of students as scientists and citizens. This is accomplished through the variety of techniques described below.

Course Syllabus

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Introduction to the Course

On a daily basis, we receive information connected to statistical data on subjects ranging from politics, health care, finance and education. An understanding of the discipline of Statistics may be one of the most beneficial tools that an informed citizen can possess. It is extremely important for citizens in today’s society to be able to properly evaluate data and the claims made with that data. With the proper tools from statistics, people are able to make informed decisions. Those decisions may relate to the natural sciences, the social sciences, medicine, business or even every day life situations.

Statistics is a mathematical science pertaining to the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of data. It is applicable to a wide variety of academic disciplines, from the physical and social sciences to the humanities. It is also used and misused for making decisions in all areas of business, health and government. Statistical methods can be used to summarize or describe a collection of data; this is called descriptive statistics. Inferential statistics is used to make conclusions about a general population based on data from a sample of the population. In this course, we will learn the basics of both descriptive and inferential statistics and examine how an understanding of these can lead to being a more informed and involved citizen.

Course Design

In the spring of 2007, each section of Statistics I With Community-Based Projectswas taught in a traditional classroom of 32 students, one day per week in a three hour and 20 minute block of time. This is the format that courses are taught at Metropolitan State University in order to best serve our non-traditional working students. During the fall semester of 2007, Statistics I With Community-Based Projects was taught in an alternate format of two times per week for a one hour and forty minute block of time. This format was much more successful for the students in that it gave them more weekly contact with their group members and also with the instructor.

During the semester, many alternate methods of teaching were used in the classroom, including in-class group work, discussion projects and discussion of current events found in the students free subscription to the online version of theNew York Times. Although students were not required to bring in articles from the newspaper to each class meeting, there were many students who came prepared to discuss articles that they had read in the New York Times and the local newspapers, the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune. One student who was majoring in nursing, frequently shared articles from nursing journals that she was required to read for one of her nursing courses.

Discussion projects were given to students after a concept had just been introduced. They were meant to provoke the students into conversation about the concept that they had just learned but also into discussions about social issues. These discussions typically would last only 5 to 10 minutes (two examples of discussion projects follow). In-class group work was much longer in length and deeper in content. A typical group work would take the class 40 to 50 minutes to complete.

Examples of Two Discussion Projects

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Competence Statement

A student who successfully completes this course will know the principles and methods of statistics used in the description and analysis of data, including collection of data, design of experiments, sampling, correlation, regression, confidence intervals, and significance tests.


Your final grade will be based on the following:

Exam I – 20%
Exam II – 20%
Exam III – 20%
Group Project – 25%
Group Work – 15%

You will be guaranteed an:
A if you earn at least 90%of the total points
Bif you earn at least 80%of the total points
Cif you earn at lease 70% of the total points
Dif you earn at least 60%of the total points
F if you earn less than 60% of the total points


There will be 3 exams. All exams will be closed book; however, you will be allowed to use both sides of one 8 1/2 x 11 page of notes for each exam. Make up exams will be given only to students who have contacted me prior to the exam time and have a legitimate excuse for missing the exam.

Group Project

This course is developed with the same goals as the standard STAT 201 course but with an emphasis on preparing students to play active roles in addressing the problems and challenges of the larger society and world in which they live, using statistics as a tool. This is done through semester-long group projects involving social issues. You will work in groups of 2, 3 or 4 students on a topic of your choice. The end result will be a written report and oral report of your statistical findings and a plan to disseminate the results to a wider audience.

To aid your group in communicating about the project, a Desire2Learn course web site will be created where you can communicate within your group, with the instructor or with other classmates.

Group Project Information and Forms

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Homework and Group Work

The tentative schedule for homework is given below. Homework will not be collected. However, I strongly encourage you to work together in groups on the homework assignments and to write up each assignment in a professional manner. I will answer questions on the homework via email, phone, during office hours and at the beginning of class.

My courses require your active participation. One way to participate in class is through group work. You will work in groups of 3 or 4 students during class time. Each student will hand in an individual write-up of the assignment at the end of the activity. I will collect the assignment, grade each one individually and then return them at our next class meeting. Because of their nature, there will be no make-ups.

Evaluating Learning

Student Evaluation

Students were assessed in the following areas: exams, in-class group work and group projects.


Students are given three exams during the course of the semester each worth 20% of their final grade. The goal of the exams is to evaluate their competency in two areas: 1) content knowledge of statistical concepts and 2) ability to transfer their content knowledge to solve problems related to social issues.

Group Work

During the course of the semester, students complete ten in-class group work assignments worth 15% of their grade. Students work in groups of 3 or 4 and are allowed to choose their own groups but are asked to find new partners at various times throughout the semester. These assignments are typically done at the end of the class period and take approximately 40 to 50 minutes to complete. Even though students work in groups on the assignments, each student hands in an individual write up and receives an individual grade. Given the three hour and 20 minute length of the classes and the once per week meeting times at Metropolitan State University, this has proven to be a very successful way for students to test their knowledge of the material before they leave the classroom and do not return for another week.

Group Project

The group project is worth 25% of the student’s final grade. That 25% is divided among the stages of the project in the following way:

  • Proposal – 15%
  • Data Collection – 15%
  • Rough Draft – 20%
  • Oral Presentation – 10%
  • Final Report – 30%
  • Action Letter – 10%

Course Evaluation

To assess the course, two instruments were used: 1) Metropolitan State University’s Instructional Improvement Questionnaire and 2) the SENCER
Student Assessment of Learning Gains.

Instructional Improvement Questionnaire

Metropolitan State University’s Instructional Improvement Questionnaire is a required course assessment that instructors must administer at the end of the each semester. There are 24 questions on the questionnaire pertaining to the quality of the course, the quality of the instructor for the course, and the environment of the classroom. Students rate the questions on a scale from 1 to 5 with 1 being an excellent rating and 5 being the poorest rating. In addition to the 24 questions, there is space for students to given written feedback on what they liked about the course/instructor and suggestions for improving the course. In both the spring of 2007 (2 sections of 32 students) and the fall of 2007 (1 section of 32 students), students in Statistics I With Community-Based Projects rated the overall quality of the course with a 1.6. This rating is not as strong as the instructor’s average rating for the overall quality of all courses she teaches. However since the spring of 2007 was the first time the instructor had ever taught statistics and the first time she had ever incorporated any type of semester long project into a mathematics course, the results still indicate a very positive experience for the student. In addition, written comments on the assessment were very positive towards the quality of the course and a few samples of comments follow.

“This was one of the best classes I have EVER taken in terms of really learning something as a result of the experiential learning opportunity of this project. This comes from a student that wanted to avoid any additional math.”

“You should also know that I consistently refer to this course as one of the few courses I have taken that I actually use everyday. So I say THANKS TO YOU and all of the forces that dropped me into that particular statistics course.”

“The course gave a global picture to understanding the use and need for statistics – that made a big difference in my desire to learn.”

SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains

During the spring of 2007, the SENCER pre and post-SALG were administered to both sections of Statistics I With Community-Based Projects. The results of the post-SALG showed large gains for the students in their confidence and ability to understand statistics and its applications. On the bar graph below, questions 1.1 through 1.13 on the pre-test and the corresponding questions 4.1 through 4.13 on the post-test are summarized to demonstrate the significant gains by the students in their attitudes towards statistics and its applications towards understanding social issues.

SALG Graph

Questions on bar graph: I am confident that I can …

  1. Discuss statistical concepts with my friends or family
  2. Think critically about statistical-related findings I read or hear about in the media.
  3. Make an argument using statistical evidence
  4. Determine the difference between appropriate and inappropriate use ofstatistics
  5. Interpret tables and graphs
  6. Understand statistical concepts commonly found in books, newspapers and journals.
  7. Find journal articles, or statistical data using library/internet databases
  8. Extract main points from a statistical report and develop a coherent summary
  9. Give a presentation using statistics to my class
  10. Describe how statistics is used in analyzing civic/environmental problems
  11. Pose questions that can be addressed by collecting and evaluating statistical evidence
  12. Organize a systematic search for relevant data to answer a question
  13. Write reports using logical reasoning or data as evidence

In addition to administering the SENCER SALG to the students in the two sections ofStatistics I With Community-Based Projects, the test was administered to the other six sections of the traditionally taught Statistics I courses. However, since the assessment could not be required of the students in the other sections, it was only completed by a few students and the results for those few students were not deemed a reliable comparison.

Background and Context

Introductory Statistics with Community-Based Projects, a course at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota.
Cindy Kaus, Associate Professor of Mathetmatics, Department of Mathematics.
Phone: 651-793-1425

Course History

Metropolitan State University sent a team of four faculty members, 2 mathematicians, a biologist and a chemist, to the SENCER Summer Institute for the first time in 2006. Shortly after completing the summer institute, Cindy Kaus began working on developing Statistics I With Community-Based Projects. In the spring semester of 2007, Statistics I With Community-Based Projectswas offered for the first time. At the time of registration, students were unaware that they were registering for a course that would be different from the traditionally taught sections of Statistics I. Students learned on the first day of class that the course they had registered for would require them to do semester long projects. Some students expressed frustration with the format of the course, others were happy to have their grade depend on something besides exams and some students were indifferent. Overall, the students who were frustrated were only a few in each class. Another source of frustration for the students was the lack of examples of group projects for the students to examine. However, since this was the first time the course was being offered there were none available. In the second semester of teaching the course, examples from each stage of the group project from the spring semester were distributed to students and this made a significant difference.

Statistics I With Community-Based Projects was not offered in the spring semester of 2008 due to the mathematics department’s need for the instructor to teach courses in other subjects. However, Cindy Kaus began working with an adjunct faculty member in the fall semester of 2007 on developing a version of Statistics I With Community-Based Projectsthat could more easily be taught by an adjunct faculty member. This version is comprised of mini projects with social issue themes. This course will be taught by adjunct faculty member in the fall of 2008.

One of the unexpected outcomes for students in offering the Statistics I With Community-Based Projects was the impact that completing significant projects in a course would have on their future career prospects. In two cases, students have attributed their success in obtaining jobs to the projects they completed in this course and to the recommendations (one oral and one written) given by the instructor. This is significant since in the instructors 11 years of teaching, she has never been asked for a recommendation from a student in a general education mathematics course.

Place in the Curriculum

STAT 201 Statistics I is a four credit course which meets the general education requirement for Goal IV: Mathematical/Logical Reasoning at all institutions in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. The course became a requirement for applied mathematics majors at Metropolitan State University in 2008. It is also a required course for any student majoring in any of the disciplines in the College of Management, Biology, Social Work, Nursing and Mathematics Teaching Licensure for grades 5-12. Many students outside of these disciplines choose to take STAT 201 to fulfill their Goal IV General Education requirement. There are two statistics courses which have STAT 201 as a prerequisite course; STAT 301 Regression Analysis and STAT 311 Analysis of Variance. Neither of these courses are required of any current major at Metropolitan State University.

Funding and Support

In the Fall of 2007, the SENCER team received two sources of funding which aided in the development of Statistics I With Community-Based Projects. The first source of funding was a SENCER NSF sub-award. The funds from this award were used to hold a workshop for faculty, both adjunct and tenure track, from multiple disciplines to inform them of the SENCER initiatives being carried out by the SENCER team. From this workshop, collaborations were put in place that aided in the development of the course. The second source of funding was the Initiative to Promote Excellence in Student Learning Grant from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. These funds went directly to funding the development of the course.

Resulting Projects and Research

Presentations related to the development of the development of this course:

The following are presentations resulting from the development and outcomes of the SENCER course Statistics I With Community-Based Projects:

Washington D.C. Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Presentation “Teaching Introductory Statistics with Community-based Projects”, 2008

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Realizing Student Potential Conference “Incorporating Civic Engagement in the Classroom: The SENCER
approach”, 2008

Macalester College’s Workshop “Sharing Innovative Ideas with Colleagues from Minnesota’s Private and Public Institutions”, 2008

SENCER Summer Institute Poster Presentation and Concurrent Session “Mathematical and Statistical Reasoning in Compelling Contexts”, 2007

Metropolitan State University’s Spring Faculty Conference “Bringing Civic Engagement into the Mathematics and Science Curriculum”, 2007