Interview a Statistician

This idea came from Ellen Rehak of Gainesville College who was my Chance Workshop roommate last year (June '97). At her school the students find statisticians on their own. Since my students are typically younger and probably less experienced in approaching companies or organizations to ask about jobs, I asked the service learning center at Bates College to contact various businesses and organizations in the community to see if they had an employee who would be willing to meet with a Bates student to discuss his or her work with statistics. The following is a copy of the letter that we sent to the organizations.

August 13, 1997

Dear ---,

Melinda Harder, in the Mathematics Department, will teach the introductory statistics course at Bates this fall. As part of the students' coursework, Professor Harder would like each student to have the opportunity to interview an employee of a company or agency who performs some statistical work as part of his or her job. She would like students to see first-hand how statistics are used in "real world" settings. We wondered if there might be an employee of yours who would be willing to be interviewed by a Bates student to discuss his/her work with statistics. Sample interview questions are on the back of this letter.

We would be most grateful if you would be willing to share the names with us of appropriate employees. We hope this small project will not only teach students about the use of statistics in the "real world", but also expose them to a variety of businesses and agencies in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Many of the students in Professor Harder's class are are first-year students, and we hope this initial exposure to the community will lead the students to greater engagement in the community during the rest of their four years at Bates.

Thank you very much for your assistance. Please do not hesitate to call me (phone #) or Melinda Harder (phone #) if you have additional questions. We look forward to hearing from you.

Most sincerely,


The list of sample questions included questions about the nature of the organization and questions on how statistics is done and used by the organization. We also requested biographical information such as the name of the employee, the name of the company, duties of the position, and statistical or mathematical courses that proved useful for the job. We came up with a final list of 14 organizations. These include Tambrands, Inc. (a manufacturer of personal care products), St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, Gates Formed-Fibre Products, Inc., Maine State Department of Labor, Lewiston Housing Authority, and more. I had 28 students, so I randomly assigned pairs to each organization. The students were responsible for contacting the employee and setting up an interview. Many of the students have access to transportation, but Bates also can arrange transportation for those who need it for classroom or service learning projects. The students gave 15-20 minute presentations on their interviews during the fourth week of class, and also gave me a written copy of the interview. The interview counted for 20% of the final grade.

I didn't systematically access student reaction (whoops), but some of the students told me that they enjoyed the interview and were interested in the role that statistics played in the workplace. One student wrote "It was nice to see that a class that I was enrolled in could be applied to everyday life." I was pleased that everyone followed through on this assignment. One of my fears was that either through apathy or scheduling problems, the interview would not take place. This didn't happen. I learned quite a bit from the experience. I didn't realize how many practicing statisticians were within an hour's drive of Bates College. For example, the GE plant near Bates has a statistical guru who oversees their "6 Sigma" program. The plant manufactures dies (molds for machines) which requires a high degree of precision so that parts meet specification limits. His job is to train employees to read charts to make sure production is achieving the standards with high probability.