Professors Find New Passion for Teaching Approach

News Story: December 5, 2018

Wesleyan University Professor Lisa Dierker, standing, works with SHU math professors, seated from left, Hema Gopalakrishnan, Elliott Bertrand, Bernadette Boyle and Jason Molitierno during a two-day workshop on passion-driven statistics at the Martire Business & Communications Center this fall.
Wesleyan University Professor Lisa Dierker, standing, works with math professors, from left, Hema Gopalakrishnan,
Elliott Bertrand, Bernadette Boyle and Jason Molitierno during a passion-driven statistics workshop this fall.

Sacred Heart University’s Khawaja A. Mamun, chair and associate professor of economics and finance, recently partnered with Lisa Dierker at Wesleyan University to bring her innovative teaching method, “Passion-Driven Statistics,” to the Fairfield campus. Mamun’s interest, in fact, resulted in a two-day workshop for SHU’s statistics faculty that took place this fall at the Frank and Marisa Martire Business & Communications Center. Dierker and her Wesleyan associate, Jennifer Rose, led the sessions. 

Mamun teaches the principles of micro- and macro-economics, quantitative methods, public finance, labor economics and global financial markets and institutions. Dierker is the Walter Crowell University professor of social sciences and the professor of psychology at Wesleyan, with expertise in the application of innovative statistical methods. She has spent her career developing collaborative relationships with leading experts across multiple disciplines and, with funding from the National Science Foundation, has spent the last eight years developing her original project-based curriculum, specifically aimed at increasing the number of students exposed to applied statistics. Related to statistics, Rose is professor of the field at Wesleyan’s quantitative analysis center, teaching applied data analysis, hierarchical linear models, latent variable analysis and introduction to statistical consulting.

The trio created a strong union of leadership for the workshops, with the goal of supporting instructors in planning authentic, data-driven research curricula across various disciplines and engaging students at different levels, including complete beginners. The sessions included brief presentations focused on the basics of the passion-driven statistics model, followed by hands-on experience with steps that showed how to engage students in independent research within the context of an introductory statistics course. To provide the best instructional experience for participating SHU faculty, workshop participants’ experience was individualized to their own interests, backgrounds and needs. 

While statistical analysis is considered an important and common denominator among diverse disciplines, developing analytic skills often is seen as a burden rather than an opportunity to pursue one’s own interests and find answers to topics about which one is passionate. Passion-Driven Statistics is essentially statistics in the service of one’s own research; in the service of one’s passion. The new method’s founders explain it as a multi-disciplinary, project-based curriculum that supports students in conducting original research, asking original questions and communicating methods and results using the language of statistics. The curriculum encourages students to work with existing data covering health, geography, earth science, government, business, education, genetics and more. From the existing data, students can pose questions of personal interest and then use statistical software—such as SAS, R, Python, Stata or SPSS—to turn raw data into useful information.

“Usually we just teach statistics, lecturing students on the topic. Now, students can download a data set—say, from a government database—and apply their own interest and questions to the data,” explained Mamun. “For example, does marijuana have an impact on weight? They can probe that data set and do different analyses.”

The new approach is revolutionary and essentially flips the whole teaching process. “Before, we presented the materials and asked students about it. Now, they pull the data and ask their own questions, ultimately pulling together their findings in a paper and poster, presented individually at the end of the semester,” said Mamun.

Jason Molitierno, chair of the math department, was instrumental in bringing the workshop to his faculty who is considering piloting the new method of teaching in two courses, Mamun said.

Besides being more enjoyable and elevating statistical studies, the new method teaches students—primarily freshmen—research skills, data organization and interpretation and presentation skills. The learning can be applied to any related business major, including accounting, finance, marketing or economics.