On Friday, I introduced the computation part of our data analysis project. I was very excited about this and created an example using Google spreadsheets. Even though I think another tool would be more powerful, I stuck with spreadsheets since most of the students are completely unfamiliar with anything else.
What we want the students to do is to take a question from the survey we conducted and break it down not just by how many people answered it a certain way, but also by a piece of demographic data. So, they might look at the question of whether people expect to have children and see whether more women or men expect to have children. To to that, you need to make a statement like “if ‘yes’ [to children question] and ‘male'”. And you have to do that for all combinations. I walked through my example in the class and eyes glazed over. Admittedly, I went fairly quickly, but these are mostly seniors, and I would hope they would have some experience with formulas in Excel or Google spreadsheets. But no. Nothing wrong with that, really, but something I want to correct going forward. I do know that one of our math teachers teaches some simple formulas during a single class period, but it’s out of context and they never–as far as I know–return to it.
In order for our students to complete this project, they have to use formulas. Well, they could do it by hand, but that would be so time consuming and crazy. So I’m thinking I need to run a workshop for the teachers on ways they can incorporate this skill and I need to find out more about where it could be used.
I was talking about this with Mr. Geeky, and he pointed out that most people are not good at this kind of analysis. They don’t even think to ask questions that drill down into the data, questions like, “What is the income breakdown? Or gender breakdown? Or racial breakdown?” They don’t know the difference between mean and median and how important looking at both might be. I often use the classic example of a bar where the average (mean) income of the customers is $40k. Bill Gates walks in and now the average income is over $1 million. Now the average income has become meaningless as something that tells you anything about the customers in the bar. One thing that computing offers is ways to slice data quickly so that you can start to see questions to ask and you can start trying to answer them with the data. This makes me even more convinced that this assignment is an important one. I’m looking forward to its outcome.