March 20, 2015

By Madeline Ruoff ’18

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Statistics professors Amy Wagaman, Nicholas Horton and Xiaofei Wang

In the year since the Amherst faculty approved statistics as a new official major—making it the 38th major in the College’s nearly 200-year history—the renamed Department of Mathematics and Statistics has been busy. This May, Amherst’s first five statistics majors will graduate, and faculty members continue to add courses and hone their offerings.

In recent years, a growing number of students have been enrolling in statistics courses, and it became increasingly apparent that a major separate from mathematics was needed, said Amy Wagaman, assistant professor of statistics.

Wagaman and Professors Nicholas Horton and Shu-Min Liao developed the major in response to that student demand, and Lecturer Xiaofei Wang was hired to round out the statisticians in the department. Although Amherst had offered courses in statistics prior to formalizing the major, the College quickly established a core of five statistics courses as well as elective requirements.

The major is based on guidelines set by a working group of the American Statistical Association (ASA), chaired by Horton himself. These guidelines were updated in 2014.

A key component of the major is the senior capstone course, in which students complete an in-depth project involving data analysis. Participants learn sophisticated modeling techniques and create interactive visuals to share their findings via reproducible means.

Statistical understanding is needed in a variety of disciplines, of course, and statisticians work on projects in fields ranging from biology to sports analysis to the social sciences. Statistics Fellows and other consultants in the department help senior thesis writers and assist with other projects on campus. The Statistics Fellows also offer peer tutoring for introductory statistics courses. What’s more, three robust teams from Amherst plan to compete at the end of March in the Five College DataFest, a nationally-coordinated undergraduate competition in which teams of up to 5 students work over a weekend to extract insight from a rich and complex data set.

And while the statistics major overlaps with mathematics, it distinguishes itself by focusing more on data analysis than theory, said Wang.

She said she believes students find statistics appealing because it “addresses real-world data.” There is also a growing demand for statistics in the job market; it has become a “vital discipline that a lot of employers look for nowadays.” Students in statistics often find careers in as quantitative analysts or data scientists, she added. 

Megan Robertson ’15, who plans to enroll in a master’s degree program in statistics when she graduates, initially became interested in the major because of the relationship between statistics and sports. She soon discovered that “statistics is vital in a liberal arts education” because it “teaches students to think about how studies are conducted and how that may influence the findings from the studies.”

“We live in a society where more and more people are looking to data to make decisions, and it is important that students be able to correctly interpret this information,” she explained.

Wagaman reiterated the importance of statistical literacy for everyone, not just statisticians: “When we read anything that presents data and talks about conclusions made from this data, we as people of this planet need to be able to assess what we’re being presented with and draw our own conclusions from it.”

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