November 30, 2021
Statistics and Economics Plunge Students into the Real World
Tracy Deeter, Upper School History and Math Teacher
What can students learn from projects as diverse as constructing a chain of paper links and bouncing a Batman action figure on a rubber-band bungee cord?
These are some of the enjoyable and instructive classroom activities I use in my Advanced Placement Statistics and Economics courses to strengthen my students’ reasoning skills and their ability to approach complex problems with open minds, keen observation and objective analysis.
In A.P. Statistics, my primary goal is to encourage flexible thinking and to approach statistical data with a critical eye. Are there inherent biases in how this information is collected or presented? Are the inferences drawn from it correct?
To encourage this critical approach, I often ask students to first conduct a real-world group experiment with no prior knowledge or assumptions and then process and assess the results later. This method gives students consistent practice in contributing original ideas, making connections between ideas, and constructing an understanding of new content in a collaborative environment.
In the Bungee Batman Jump, for instance, students attach a bungee cord made of linked rubber bands to a Batman action figure and drop it toward the ground 15 feet below. Before the drop, each group of students constructs a linear regression model to calculate the number of rubber bands that will give Batman his maximum plunge without crashing into the ground.
Each group asks: How accurate are our predictions for Batman’s drop? Is it wise to use extrapolation? How do outlier conjectures affect our linear regression model?
Such practical experimentation enriches my A.P. Economics course as well. Economics is a social science that examines the way people make decisions. Students quickly learn that every decision in economics involves both benefits and costs, including overlooked marginal benefits, such as a company’s reputation, or unforeseen opportunity costs, i.e., how does the action we’re taking preclude us from taking other beneficial actions? So we engage in activities that illustrate concepts involving making choices.
In the Paper Chain Game, students explore the cost-benefits dynamic in labor supply by creating a mini-factory. Students are divided into groups of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 people. Each group is given the same resources – a stack of paper, a pair of scissors and a stapler – and asked to create a chain with as many paper loops as they can in three minutes.
Which group will be able to produce the most links? At what point does increasing the number of workers stop adding to the productivity of the group? What is the optimal number of workers to hire? What are the benefits and costs of hiring that number, or of hiring fewer or more workers?
Of course, not every activity in these two classes involves fun and games, but we often apply the concepts we learn to relevant social and practical issues.
Statistics students, for instance, investigate whether research data on New York City’s “Stop-and-Frisk” program provides enough evidence to prove that police are racially biased. Economics students explore the reasons male pro golfers make more money than female pros and why Ben and Jerry’s provides financial support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Connecting concepts to real-life data, whether it concerns bungee jumps or racial bias, brings these concepts to life for students.
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