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My Walk in Wonderland: How Statistics Saved My Life, Gave Me a Teaching Idea, and Got Me on Oprah

July 15, 2011

I love statistics the way Mark Twain loved liars: Both provide an endless pool of entertaining, esoteric stories that are almost always too good to be true.  Take my title, for example.  Statistics show that only one of every three statements we make is actually verifiable.  No, wait, I made that stat up.  But, given what we know about language and human nature, it sounds so, so true, doesn’t it?

But statistics are to reporters what analogies are to teachers:  Starting places to put information in the larger context of understandable truth that generates meaning. (Anyone hear the strains of Hutchins Commission Report?)  So where to start with your student reporters?  The obvious answer (an obvious answer, a possibly obvious answer; an, ok, I never-thought-about-it before answer) is IPEDS, “the primary source for data on colleges, universities, and technical and vocational postsecondary institutions in the United States” (http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/). Why? Again, the obvious answer (an obvious answer, a possibly obvious answer; an, ok, I never-thought-about-it before answer) is that students are navel gazers.  IPEDS, in a way, is one big navel.

Here is what the site provides:

College Navigator: Lets users create side-by-side comparisons of institutions

IPEDS Data Center: Lets users compare institutions, download data files, and create reports

IPEDS State Data Center: Lets user create custom data tables and state profiles

IPEDS Resources: Lets users access FAQs and archives

IPEDS Tables Library: Lets users download national and state data tables on almost any related educationally related subjects

Not only do you get lots of stats, but you can create customized graphics from those stats. Moreover, given that it’s a government site, the information is freely available, reproducible, and (reasonably—depending on your take of the government) vetted.

Now here’s the really useful part:  Students can create graphs from the site in literally 10 minutes (with a little practice).  Topics can include almost anything since IPEDS offers stats on everything from graduation rates for athletes to enrollment trends to financial data (what a way to worry your administrators).

So here’s the class scenario after you’ve let them play a while on the site:  They’re the editor-in-chief.  Twenty minutes before deadline, they find out their never-missed-a-deadline reporter has been hired by the (insert your favorite paper here) and left a bloody, gaping hole on the front page.  They check their tickler file only to discover that they actually don’t know what a tickler file is and, even if they do, it’s empty as a politician’s promise (or insert your own favorite, highly revealing cliché here).  Send them to IPEDS to come back with a meaningful, relevant graphic worthy of page 1.

Then have the class actually save those meaningful, relevant graphs in a real tickler file to be made available to your college or university newspaper. 

 

Pat Miller

Valdosta State University

 

 

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