History of Statistics: A STEM-Based Study Abroad Experience

History of Statistics: A STEM-Based Study Abroad Experience

Incorporating an international learning experience into US higher education programs has become increasingly important for creating a workforce with the ability and mindset to tackle global challenges. Inspired by The Lady Tasting Tea, which describes how historical motivations lie behind several key advances in statistics, we created an innovative STEM-focused study abroad program that took students to the historical beginnings of the statistics discipline in England. Based in Cambridge and London, the program had the following goals:

We visited possible venues in the summer of 2019, and the program was all set to run during spring break of 2020. However, due to the COVID outbreak, the program took place in May of 2022. Our party of 13 University of Florida undergraduate students, or “statistorians”—drawn primarily from statistics, data science, and related STEM majors—prepared by reading and taking quizzes on The Lady Tasting Tea and The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom. In addition, we recommended students read The Ghost Map, The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science; Cities and the Modern World; and The Theory That Would Not Die, How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code.

Our group gathered at Heathrow Airport and was transported by coach to our hotel in Cambridge for a four-night stay, which commenced with a welcome dinner that evening. A science-themed guided walking tour of Cambridge on our first full day introduced students to the history of both the city and university, and our guide was able to access Pembroke College to show the students a bit of student life.

The program focused on the following statistical and data science themes:

Cryptography The evening before our all-day visit to Bletchley Park, the students attended a lecture about the history of codebreaking. At Bletchley, we learned in detail how Alan Turing and the team of statistical codebreakers were able to crack the Enigma code and shorten World War II. Highlights were visiting the actual huts, seeing a working replica of a Bombe machine, and using an authentic Enigma machine—the very one used in the movie The Imitation Game. Bletchley Park’s newest exhibit, The Art of Data: Making Sense of the World, demonstrated ways the codebreakers visualized data alongside contemporary examples, which included sports analytics and cybersecurity.

Experimental Design Rothamsted Research is where Sir Ronald Fisher conducted his historic agricultural experiments, giving birth to experimental design and the concept of randomization. We attended talks about the history of statistics at Rothamsted, their current research activities, and how we can access and use their long-term data. After lunch, we viewed their classical experiments in the Broadbalk and Park Grass fields, experiments that have been running since the 1850s.

Gathering Information The Royal Statistical Society, founded in 1834, is one of the world’s most distinguished and renowned statistical societies. Not only is it the learned society for statistics in Britain, but it also promotes statistics for the public good.

Moving to London for the second half of the program, we made an afternoon visit to the Royal Statistical Society central office to hear about the role statistics and data analysis can play in society. We held archival material such as the original letter admitting Florence Nightingale, the first female, into the Royal Statistical Society and a letter written by her to William Farr in 1871.

We then took a mini tour of the immediate area given by the Royal Statistical Society archivist, including the tomb of Thomas Bayes in Bunhill Fields.

Early Computers We spent the following morning at the Science Museum, paying particular attention to the Winton Gallery. We looked at some of the earliest computing devices, including Babbage’s Analytical Engine, to learn how innovation in information and communication technology has transformed our lives.

Sports Analytics That afternoon, we visited Fulham Football Club to hear a talk by the club’s sport scientist, titled “Sport Science in Elite Sport: The Relationship Between Load and Injury Risk.” This opened our eyes to the enormous amount of data collected by football clubs, and Fulham in particular, on the club’s players to monitor each individual’s workload and injury history.

Archival Research The National Archives in Kew, London, is the UK government’s official archive, containing 1,000 years of history—from the Domesday Book to the present with records on parchment and paper scrolls to digital files. Here, we heard talks about the UK census and related surveys, the collection of statistics throughout the British Empire, and intelligence records for the Second World War period. Throughout, we viewed relevant documents and records such as maps depicting the population of England in 1801 and Colonial Office records.

Data Visualization Moving to the Florence Nightingale Museum that afternoon, we saw how statistical diagrams were first used in the study of deaths and diseases during the 1850s and heard a talk about the life of the famous nurse and early statistician.

Our final day was a “free” day in London. Almost everyone went on a river boat trip to Greenwich and took a guided tour that included Greenwich Park, the National Maritime Museum, and the old Royal Observatory, where the guide noted that the idea of a normal curve had its beginnings in calculating combinations of observations by astronomers. Our trip ended with photos of everyone standing on the Prime Meridian.

Learn more about the STEM-based study abroad experience.

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