The University of Texas at Austin
  • Institute makes statistics accessible for all

    By Daniel Oppenheimer
    Daniel Oppenheimer
    Published: June 30, 2008
    Institute

    When Drs. Sheldon Ekland-Olson and Cathy Stacy were putting the finishing touches on the program for the first UT Summer Statistics Institute (SSI), they worried that there wouldn’t be enough students to fill the 18 different classes on topics like multiple regression, hierarchical linear modeling and Bayesian statistics.

    “We expected 250 people, but we ended up with over 500,” says Dr. Stacy, an assistant dean in the College of Natural Sciences and a coordinator with the new Division of Statistics & Scientific Computation (Ekland-Olson is the director of the division). “Virtually every class at every level was full, and we had waiting lists for some. It was really exciting.”

    The primary purpose of the SSI, says Stacy, was to make a variety of statistics courses accessible to people-to graduate students in particular, but also to faculty, alumni, government workers, and others-in intensive, short-course forms that were both convenient and affordable.

    “It was one of the best experiences that I’ve had as a Ph.D. student at UT,” says Kelly Mikelson, a doctoral student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. “Last summer I did a similar program in Ann Arbor, and that cost $2500. This was so much easier logistically, but just as stimulating and useful.”

    The four-day courses were held from May 27-30, so that students and faculty could stay on after regular classes were over without interrupting their summer plans. The 20 faculty who taught came from 12 different departments across campus, and with the help of funding from the provost’s office, the institute was able to keep the cost of enrollment very low.

    “This is a way to enable students who may only have a basic knowledge of statistics, but who suspect that they could use some of these higher level techniques in their future research, to get an overview with only a small investment of time and money,” says Stacy.

    The other goal of the institute, says Stacy, was to further the community-building mission of the Division of Statistics & Scientific Computation, which resides in the College of Natural Sciences but draws on the talents and interests of scholars and students from departments throughout the university.

    “We had a faculty lunch for all of those who were teaching at the institute,” says Stacy. “As we went around the room introducing ourselves, nearly every person was from a different department or college. We don’t have that kind of community normally, but it’s changing.”

    Among the faculty who taught were government professor Stephen Jessee; Kirk Von Sternberg from the School of Social Work; sociologist Tom Pullum; Chris Jablonowski from the School of Engineering; Thomas Sagerfrom the School of Business; and human ecology professor Edward Anderson.

    The feedback from students and teachers who participated in the SSI, says Ekland-Olson, has been almost uniformly positive, and he looks forward to diversifying the program next summer to include more intermediate level courses (this year’s offerings were focused more on beginning and advanced students).

    “The basic courses over the long term semesters are the core of the division,” says Ekland-Olson, “as well as the consulting we offer to faculty and students on their research. The institute, however, is an important supplement to those core missions.”

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