Inspiring with statistics at STEM Fair 2016

On Wednesday 15th June, the MRC Biostatistics Unit (BSU) took part in STEM Fair 2016. The Fair was a two day event aiming to enrich Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and highlight a range of STEM careers. The Young Investigator's Day for primary school children came first, followed by a Careers Day aimed at 11–18 year olds. BSU took part on the second day, where we held a workshop involving two activities – created by Senior Investigator Statistician, and BSU Public Engagement Champion, Dr Simon White.

IMG_2052The first activity, called 'Agreement on tumour sizes - are we measuring the same way?' focused on collecting and using data to answer a question about agreement between measurements. The students were part of a hypothetical study to compare whether two hospitals were consistent in their assessment of changes in tumour size, a key indicator in determining a patient's treatment. The activity required the students, using a ruler, to measure a patient's tumour size before and after treatment, and then to calculate the percentage change in size. However, students were split into two independent 'hospitals' and each patient was measured by both groups. So the students had collected a lot of data, all the measurements of changing tumour sizes, but how do they use that data to answer the key question: whether both hospitals agree? BSU scientists guided the students through the main points of the activity and helped them to understand what measures of agreement are and why they are useful.

IMG_2044The second activity gave the students the opportunity to work through a series of questions themselves and to interact with their fellow students to help reach an answer and solve several problems; with BSU scientists on hand to help where needed. It focused on free-form investigation of data, in the context of tooth decay among young people. A hypothetical sample of young people was represented by a deck of cards, each card represented a person with information such as their age, sex, whether they have tooth decay, how regularly they brush their teeth, and so on. With only a brief introduction from the BSU scientists, the students were allowed to explore the sample, using the cards to create visual displays of the data; this helped them to investigate and analyse the sample. They were trying to understand tooth decay, to answer the question – what is associated with a higher chance of having decay, and perhaps more importantly, what questions they might not be able to answer, since they had too few people/cards in their study.

The two activities were designed for a workshop style event such as STEM Fair. Each activity included both group and individual learning, as well as scientist-led and interactive learning, and overall both proved to be very successful. The workshop ran twice with 26 students taking part. The students engaged with what they were asked to do and with the key messages, allowing them insight into what real data analysis and biostatistics research involves. Simon White said: “Turning data into knowledge, that we can then use to answer important questions, is the core of what it is to be a statistician. The students were given a taste of what statistics is about and how it applies to medical research.”

The fair, which took place at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford and was organised by STEM Team East, was a fantastic success overall. Comments from students included:

“It was extremely enjoyable and interesting.”

“I enjoyed this because it gave us lots of information.”

“I like that it was to do with real life situations”

IMG_2039Reaching out to secondary school students is a key public engagement objective for BSU. Through engaging and working directly with schools and taking part in events such as STEM Fair, we hope to inspire and nurture the next generation of potential statisticians and biostatisticians. BSU look forward to working more with school students and in upcoming STEM activities in the future.


Image captions: (Top left) Learning about sampling of data with tooth decay activity, (middle right) understanding data and agreement with tumour measuring, (bottom left) Simon White and BSU scientists guiding students through our activities