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The Next Generation of Statisticians

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

One of the most exciting aspects of my job as the head of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and an advocate for statistical literacy is to see students coming into the profession of statistics. We are fortunate, according to Bob Rodriguez, past-president of the American Statistical Association (ASA) in a column published in ASA’s AMSTATNEWS, “that the number of students majoring or minoring in statistics is soaring because of positive experiences in AP Statistics courses. The word is out that statistics is a ‘must’.”

Engaging students even earlier than high school is important not only for developing future statisticians but also so that they understand the importance of responding to surveys.  Both private and government statistics, including those about agriculture from my agency, are dependent on voluntary survey response.

This is why we are working with other organizations to bring science and statistics to the classroom.  Some time ago, I worked with colleagues in other countries to develop a Census at School classroom activity.  It brings statistics to students in an interesting and fun way. Students complete a brief online survey, analyze their class’s census results, and compare their class with random samples from students in the United States and other countries.

NASS recently partnered with ASA and the National Agriculture in the Classroom organization to create a food preference lesson plan that uses the Census at School questions about students’ favorite foods, making an agricultural connection.  The lesson introduces real-life ways to use statistics and addresses numerous common core standards for grades 5-8.

Early exposure to statistics was not something available to me when I was a student. I found statistics quite by accident as a graduate student in mathematics. I was looking for a field in which I could use my math background and found the Statistics Department at Iowa State University.

Making statistics interesting to students is critical and should not be hard.  A quick scan of recent titles in Significance, a joint magazine of ASA and the British Royal Statistical Society, shows statistics-based articles on whether slams in tennis matches convert to wins; the cost of preserving biodiversity on Earth; precision agriculture; using statistics for disaster relief in Haiti; renewable energy and climate change; breast implants; Hitchcock, statistics and film; and combinations of policies that would win votes, to name just a few.

Of particular interest to students (and their parents) should be the projected demand for good jobs for statisticians.  Analysts from the research firm PayScale used its compensation database along with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job growth projections through 2020 to determine the most valuable college majors according to a 2012 Forbes magazine article. The story stated that statistics was among the top 15 majors for its value in terms of salary and career prospects.

We know we will continue to need statisticians in government to provide accurate, useful and timely public data for policy, personal and business decisions of all kinds.  We are working hard to see that educational opportunities at all levels encourage students to enter scientific fields, including statistics.

Next generation of farmers learned all about the Census of Agriculture and agricultural statistics at last year’s Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis.

Next generation of farmers learned all about the Census of Agriculture and agricultural statistics at last year’s Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis.

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