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September 5, 2013

$1.5 million grant to help sophomores gain research experience, mentoring in Statistics

Mark Daniel Ward

Mark Daniel Ward (Purdue University photo/ courtesy of Mark Daniel Ward)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. —A new Purdue University program connecting academics, research, professional development and residential life is designed to help statistics students overcome the "sophomore slump."

The new program, funded by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, will create a learning community in which participating students live together, dine with faculty, attend scientific meetings, take new courses as a group, and participate in a full-year research project.

The sophomore year is often called the "sophomore slump" because of a smaller number of sophomore-specific programs, and because of attrition among science students after the first year of study, said Mark Daniel Ward, the associate professor of statistics who leads the program.

"We lavish a lot of resources on first-year students to help them get their footing, and juniors and seniors usually are part of a research team with a faculty mentor, but sophomores are out there on their own," Ward said. "The sophomore year is one of transition, when students are preparing to make important decisions about their academic path. We want to give them a rich experience from which to make these decisions - and to offer them support - so they are successful in whatever path they choose."

For most sophomores this research experience will be their first, he said.

"It is uncommon for a sophomore to participate in research, especially for a full year, but we want to change that," Ward said. "We want students to know they don't have to know it all or be an expert before joining a research team. They can jump right in and learn as they go. Purdue students are enthusiastic and capable, and we want to create a culture and climate that is really supportive of undergraduate research."

In addition to Ward, members of the grant-winning team are professors of statistics Rebecca Doerge, Jun Xie, Hao Zhang and Lingsong Zhang, who will help lead the program, and professors Guang Cheng, Sharon Christ, Hyonho Chun, Bruce Craig, Frederi Viens and Xiao Wang.

A $9400/year stipend will be given to participating students, so that they may focus on their academics and research experience, he said. The grant provides funding for 20 students each year, beginning in the fall of 2014, and spans five years. The program is open to students in any major, but is focused on statistics and would likely involve those from other areas adding a statistics major, Ward said.

The program also will offer a new course in data analysis and visualization.

"We want to get students comfortable with large data sets and visualization tools earlier," Ward said. "The 'big data' problem is only going to become more important as time goes by. The way we teach statistics and data analysis is rapidly evolving."

The size of Purdue's undergraduate program in the Department of Statistics has more than doubled in the last five years (an increase from 200 to more than 400 students), and employment opportunities in the field continue to increase, Ward said.

"Everybody has data, and companies need people well-suited to analyze it," he said. "Statistics has applications in almost every field. This program will represent that breadth, because faculty in other departments are collaborating with us, providing both data sets and mentoring in applied research opportunities. I think it will be eye opening for the students to see how statistics affects other fields and can be applied to real-world problems."

The learning community will be a part of the Learning Community Program within Student Success at Purdue. Participating students will live together in a residence hall, so that they may connect with their peers and discuss research in an encouraging team-oriented climate, Ward said. Students also will dine with their professors as part of a faculty fellow program.

The program also will offer professional development opportunities for increased mentoring, especially for women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities.

Ward hopes the program will be another big success for his department.

"Purdue Statistics has a consulting program for graduate students, that many departments across the country have recreated," he said. "I would love for this sophomore undergraduate experience to become a nationwide model for how we train students at the sophomore level."

Partners in the program include the College of Science, College of Engineering, College of Health and Human Sciences, and the Honors College; the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering; Discovery Learning Research Center; Office of the Dean of Students; Housing and Food Services; Information Technology at Purdue; Libraries; the Purdue Chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS); and Student Success in the Office of the Provost.  Student activities have been planned in connection with Duke University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

A link for students to apply for this research opportunity will be posted on the project's website, http://www.stat.purdue.edu/llc; for more information, send email to llc@stat.purdue.edu.

Writer: Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu 

Source: Mark Daniel Ward, 765-496-9563, mdw@purdue.edu

Related websites:

Statistics Living-Learning Community