New ASA Guidelines for Undergraduate Statistics Programs

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by Joseph Rickert

The American Statistical Association (ASA) Undergraduate Guidelines Workgroup recently published the report Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Programs in Statistical Science. Although intended for educators setting up or revamping Stats programs at colleges and universities, this concise, 17 page document should be good reading for anyone who wants to take charge of their own education in learning to “think with data”. Whether you are just getting started with your education or you are a working professional contemplating what to learn next to expand your knowledge and update your skills you should find the ASA report helpful.

The report places good statistical practice firmly on the foundation of the scientific method and locates statistical knowledge and skills squarely in the center modern data analysis.

However, it is far from being a complacent panegyric to statistics. The ASA report challenges educators to help students see that the “discipline of statistics is more than a collection of unrelated tools” and explicitly calls for an increased emphasis on data science and big league computational skills. Graduates of statistical programs:

should be facile with professional statistical software and other appropriate tools for data exploration, cleaning, validation, analysis, and communication. They should be able to program in a higher-level language, to think algorithmically, to use simulation-based statistical techniques . . . Graduates should be able to manage and manipulate data, including joining data from different sources and formats and restructuring data into a form suitable for analysis. 

The expectations for communication skills are particularly noteworthy. The report says:

Graduates should be expected to write clearly, speak fluently, and construct effective visual displays and compelling written summaries. They should demonstrate ability to collaborate in teams and to organize and manage projects.

One could argue about the details of the topics that should be included in an undergraduate program. But, clearly the committe is aiming for far more than producing minimly competent, employable graduates. They are outlining a way of life, a competent way of being in a data driven world. 

Hidden among the white papers listed on the ASA curriculum guidelines page is a treasure: Tim Hesterberg's paper on What Teachers Should Know about the Bootstrap: Resampling in the Undergraduate Curriculum. This is a lucid and fairly deep explication of bootstrapping and resampling techniques that deserves wide circulation. Tim writes that he had three goals in producing the paper: (1) To show the enormous potential of bootstrapping and permutation tests to help students understand statistical concepts . . .(2) To dig deeper . . .(3) To change statistical practice . . .”

Point (3) may sound astoundingly ambitious. However, it is grounded in a revolution that has been quietly gaining strength and whose time has come. Textbooks that rely on R based simulations to teach probability (e.g. Baclawski) and statistics (e.g. Matloff) have been available for some time, and Tim points out that undergraduate textbooks such as Chihara and Hesterberg which use resampling as the fundamental unifying idea are beginning to appear. Moreover, data scientists outside of the community of academic statisticians are well aware that programming skills more than compensate for a traditional statistics education that presents the subject as a collection of unrelated tests and techniques as this Strata Hadoop world presentation from John Rauser makes clear.

It is very good, indeed, to see the ASA leading the charge for change.

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