Statistics Questions

I’ve never really liked statistics.

I know that’s a terrible thing to say as a teacher, but it’s true. Stats has always seemed too messy and too tedious to me. Compared with algebra, with it’s clear “it’s either proven or it’s not” results and elegant working, statistics is all over the place. (I majored in pure maths at uni, if you couldn’t tell).

But I think I’m actually starting to get a soft spot for stats now. I’ve realised something: statistics (and all maths and science, for that matter) is most interesting when it tells you something about the world that you didn’t realise before. Or maybe when it tells you something you already thought, but could never justify as true. I think I already knew this, but hadn’t bothered to actually put it into words before.

Statistics has a function that no other area of mathematics can really cover. Whenever we have a logical statement that we want to prove as true or false, algebra has our back. But for those questions that we don’t really know the answer to, that we have no real way of proving but want to have a crack at finding out anyway? Time to reach for the stats toolbox.

This is the key thing to convey to students about statistics – stats is how we answer those questions that seem, at first, unanswerable. So my Year 9 class started our statistics unit by asking a question. Learning from last year, I put a couple more restrictions on what the question could be:

  • The question had to be interesting. In my experience, some groups start with simple, obvious questions because it fits their need to complete any set task as quickly as possible. They don’t realise how bored they’ll be later in the project. I had to reject questions from a few groups, which annoyed them at the time, but I think their new questions were a lot more interesting.
  • No survey questions. I wasn’t letting my class interupt every other class in school. I think I was the most hated teacher in the staff room for a while last year.

So questions like “What’s the favourite AFL team of our school?” and “What type of music do teenagers like?” were out. These are the actual questions asked (and to be answered!) by our class:

  • Do pink marshmallows cook faster or slower than white marshmallows?
  • Does closing one eye affect the ability of a person to shoot a basketball or a netball?
  • Which types of biscuits go soggy in hot drinks first, and are they affected by adding milk?
  • What effect do TV shows and movies have on the heart rate of the viewer?
  • How is the cooling rate of boiled water affected by the container it’s kept in?
  • How do different web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer) compare in terms of Javascript speed, when run on different devices?

(I apologise to any of my students if I got these wrong, but I wrote that list from memory.)

It was last week when they chose their questions. They performed their actual experiments today, and I’ll share a bit more about that once they’ve written up their projects.

But I’ll share one preliminary result: the heart rate group chose me as one of their test subjects. I really stood no chance keeping my pulse steady: they showed me a scene from Doctor Who. Not only that, but it was the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration!

Then they showed me a scene that I found out afterwards was from High School Musical. Let’s just say that my choice to never watch that movie was the right one.

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