Student-run workshop introduces girls to biostatistics, math, and coding

Published on May 2, 2024

Amy Wu
Amy Wu

Last month, several graduate students from the Department of Biostatistics held an introductory coding and biostatistics workshop with fourth through sixth grade girls participating in the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County’s (NCJC) after school program in Iowa City. Amy Wu was one of the students coordinating the workshop, and we recently asked her some questions about this new student-led community engagement initiative.

Tell us about the origins of this initiative; where did the idea come from and who are the partners you worked with to make it happen?

The Women in Biostatistics group in our department, run by Dr. Emine Bayman and Dr. Emily Roberts, had been wanting to do a volunteer event for a while. I had been volunteering sporadically at NCJC ever since I was introduced to them during the College of Public Health’s Orientation Week (shoutout!), and I thought it would be a great “crossover” event. Since we are a University of Iowa group that offers career development and empowerment to women in biostatistics, we wanted to partner with NCJC to empower elementary- to middle school-aged girls to consider future directions in math and programming. This was a one-time event, but I think it is totally possible to do this on a yearly basis.

a biostats graduate student explains data on a screen to girls at an after school program

What were the goals of this workshop?

The goals of the workshop were to describe to the girls what biostatistics is and to explore math and coding as future directions in high school, college, and beyond.

What activities did your group do with the kids and how did those introduce some of the basic concepts of coding and biostatistics?

Our ice breaker activity involved the girls introducing themselves and coming up with a noun, a verb, and an adjective. These words were added to a program (which we showed on screen) that produced a silly mad-lib, randomly selecting words from the pool they contributed to! That was the programming demonstration. For the statistical demonstration, we had the girls fold paper airplanes and toss them, measuring both distance and hang time (time in the air). This was plotted on a scatterplot and a histogram, and we discussed patterns/associations in the data.

How is this type of community engagement project valuable to your group of graduate students?

This event was so valuable to graduate students, especially those of us in biostatistics, because our work tends to be very “behind-the-scenes:” running code, running numbers, writing reports, etc. This was a fantastic opportunity to interface with our community, talk to girls who are ecstatic about STEM, and also build connections between the College of Public Health and NCJC. It is really exciting to see that grad students WANT to volunteer their time and engage with their community, and NCJC WANTS to partner with so many cool groups in the Iowa City community. This is one of those times where two separate goals are met in one, and the result was beneficial to all parties involved.

biostats graduate students explain data they gathered during an activity at an after school program

What are the future plans for this initiative?

We would love to keep doing these workshops on an annual basis! I’m graduating this May so unfortunately, I won’t be able to see the next rendition of this event. I think it would be cool to do a lot more hands-on coding. This time, we only did a programming demo, since we all code in R and it can be dense and daunting—we were not sure if the age group was necessarily interested in that kind of coding. We got feedback in real time that they love working with computers and have experience with introductory coding languages already (such as Scratch), so it turns out they probably would be interested in taking it up a notch and learning R!

Thanks so much also to the Wright House of Fashion for letting us use their space! Their indoor runway was perfect for the paper airplane toss, and they also had about ten really nice computers in there. I highly encourage the next group of Women in Biostatistics students to do this event again in that exact same space! The Wright House is also open to hosting any other events, so if you and your group are interested, definitely contact them!