Data Journalists Show Statistics Students the Probability of a Strong Employment Future
Three months into the spring semester, the University of Virginia students in statistics lecturers Rebecca Hehn and Maria Ferrara’s sections of “Statistics for Biologists” had learned the basics of probability, hypothesis testing and confidence intervals. The data sets provided for class assignments drew heavily from the realms of biology and medicine, fitting for a prerequisite course for aspiring science majors and pre-med students.
In April, a pair of data journalists invited to Grounds by the Department of Statistics led hundreds of UVA students, including Ferrara and Hehn’s classes, through a wider variety of problem sets ranging from the topical to the whimsical.
At the Stats Live! Symposium’s “novice level” presentation in Nau Hall, one team of students explained to data journalists Walt Hickey and Ella Koeze how the survey they examined did not provide enough data to determine statistically whether there is an association between gender and income. Another team examined a different survey’s results to determine whether there is a correlation between a survey respondent’s Myers & Briggs personality type (introvert or extrovert) and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry house with which they most identify from the Harry Potter series of novels.
“It looks like Generation Z has more Slytherins than other age group in this survey. Aren’t you Gen Z? Wow, I’m watching out,” joked Koeze, a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight, the news website focused on opinion poll analysis, politics, sports and other topics.
Koeze and Hickey’s visit to Grounds the second week of April marked a return visit to UVA to lead a two-day symposium, which is sponsored by a grant from the A&S Learning Design & Technology team within the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. The first Stats Live! Symposium, held in the spring of 2018, was preceded by a series of virtual symposiums where the data journalists fielded questions about data visualization, data and journalistic storytelling from UVA students. Hehn said that Koeze and Hickey’s presentations and visits to UVA have had a huge impact.
“One of the things I realized early on when I came here was that I really wanted to find a way to motivate the students in my class and show them that whatever career path they choose, statistics will play a role,” she said. “A lot of my students may become doctors or research scientists, and in the medical sciences, it’s especially important.”
Different career paths
As part of their presentations, Koeze and Hickey explain to students the different routes that can lead to a career in data journalism and many other professions seeking job candidates with a fluency in statistics and data visualization. Koeze majored in English and geography at the University of North Carolina and “camped out” in the visual communication corner of UNC’s journalism school her senior year to learn the basics of graphic design and web development before earning a job with FiveThirtyEight’s graphics team after graduation. Her recent projects for FiveThirtyEight included the creation of a series of current and alternative congressional district maps illustrating the impact of gerrymandering in North Carolina and other states.
Hickey, now a senior editor for Business Insider and author of Numlock News, a daily morning newsletter that highlights the context and importance of topical numbers in the daily news, studied applied mathematics at William & Mary. Hickey joked that he’s “a bit all over the map” with his projects, which include a series of stories on millennials and money and how they perceive saving and differently than other generations, as well as a recent piece for Marvel.com offering a statistical analysis of how powerful Captain Marvel compared to other comic book superheroes.
(The math holds up, Captain Marvel fans. “She’s quite strong, indeed. I can guarantee it,” Hickey said with a laugh.”)
“One thing we’re trying to do, working from realistic data sets and actual survey that my group Insider worked on, is show the students the actual practicalities of data collection and interpretation in the real world and how that might differ from some of the more hypothetical stuff that they sometimes see in class,” Hickey said between symposium presentations. “We want to convey that there’s a ton of opportunity here, a ton of ways you can use the techniques and skills you build at the University of Virginia to succeed outside and after and wherever they go on to.
“It’s a chance to underscore this is a tool and a technique and a style of interpreting things that has utility across disciplines. I’m a math kid who became a writer, and Ella was a geography geek who now does some of the most watched and read things on the data Internet. At the end of the day you can come into your eventual career a lot of different ways, but it’s the techniques and the skills that you pick up here, in courses like statistics that can help you come away with some cool things that can carry you for a while.”
“One of the things I hope to convey in the symposium is that you don’t need to be a math major, or to even be that good at implementing math to be able to think critically about math the same way you would about anything else to be numerically literate, to ask questions about data, to see how it can be good or bad to inform your world,” Koeze added.
Hehn said the symposium has served to inspired students to pursue the study of statistics beyond a preconceived notion of it serving as a prerequisite to cross off a list of required undergraduate courses.
“I’ve seen so many students walk away from the symposium so much more interested in statistics and so much more motivated to pursue further study of it. That’s the reason why we keep doing this symposium,” she said.
Embracing the possibilities
Kendall Roche, a first-year student in Hehn’s class who worked on a group presentation for the symposium’s novice-level section, said she was intrigued by Koeze’s explanation of the fonts, colors and other visual choices she makes when deciding how present data in her FiveThirtyEight projects.
“I’d never really thought about statistics as a career, but I do think that visualizing data sounds really cool, and I’m really interested in it,” said Roche, who says she is “pre-med.”
“So, I would want to see how I could build that into what I want to do with my life, perhaps in terms of research and what I may want to pursue with that.”
Tessa Danehy, a second-year statistics major from Newport News, Virginia, said that while she had assumed that data scientists relied primarily on R, Python and other programming languages to explore data sets and to visualize data, she was pleasantly surprised by Hickey and Koeze’s assurances that much of their work could be accomplished through Excel, which does not require as much technical background.
“I’m such a stats nerd, and I really love data visualization,” said Daney, who is traveling to Cologne, Germany this summer for a bioinformatics research internship at the Max Planck Institute for the Biology of Aging.
Danehy said that the coursework she’s taken in statistics at UVA gave her a leg up when applying for the internationally competitive internship.
“From the feedback I received, it seems they were only interested in my application because I was a biostatistics major instead of biology, since almost every internship application they receive comes from a biology major,” said Daney, who is a resident advisor in a first-year residence hall. “To have somebody with a background in statistics who understands the theoretical math is quite valuable in research, and made me a more attractive candidate. I tell all my residents they should major in statistics because it sets you up so well for all of these data-driven professions of the future.”