Biostatistics goes to high school

Students with laptops in a classroom setting

Biostatistics can be intimidating, with its exacting mathematics and sophisticated science. But overcome the intimidation factor and there lies a fascinating field with broad appeal.

Getting to this sweet spot by introducing biostatistics to ninth-grade students is one of the goals of a new partnership between the School of Public Health Division of Biostatistics outreach program and St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS). The partnership is exposing students to data science, environmental health science, and public health in general through a co-created curriculum.

Sarah Samorodnitsky, biostatistics PhD student, kicked off the division’s outreach efforts with this SPPS project. Her hope is that by introducing biostatistics at the high school level, it will demystify the subject and offer new pathways to public health careers, especially for students that historically haven’t been exposed to these opportunities. 

An outreach committee presented its ideas to SPPS teachers in the spring of 2020. The teachers chose a curriculum that would allow students to study real-world public health scenarios involving air quality and the environment. An interactive site showcasing Minnesota’s air quality levels over the last five years would accompany the curriculum, providing students with a platform to engage with the data. 

“We knew that whatever we created had to be something that students could understand in the context of their own lives,” says Marta Shore, outreach committee chair and instructor in the Division of Biostatistics. “It had to be local and current in order for it to be relevant.”

A robust map of Minnesota allows students to explore air quality throughout the state during different date ranges and with other criteria. Tabs let students explore such things as how human activities impact air quality, or air quality trends depending on the season, the weather, or even holidays.

This past fall, all 10 high schools within the SPPS system applied the biostatistics curriculum. One of them is Creative Arts Secondary School.

“Before I was a teacher, I was a scientist,” says Ross Winberg, science teacher at the school. “So I like the fact that, with this curriculum, we’re pulling in real data and looking at a problem that’s relevant to us all.”

Winberg shares an example of an assignment using the application. Students would begin by reading a news article about Canadian wildfires in the summer of 2018, then he’d challenge them to investigate how air quality in Minnesota was affected during that time. 

Students solve air-quality mysteries like this, drawing on clues in the data that the biostatistics outreach committee planted for them. By stoking curiosity and introducing students to public health data in an interactive format, the curriculum will support a complex-thinking model while introducing kids to biostatistics in a way that’s fun and interesting, not intimidating and scary. 

“It’s empowering for young people to understand what data means and how it impacts them,” Samorodnitsky says. “This is where biostatistics comes in—doing that research and explaining it clearly. It’s good for young people to feel empowered by that knowledge.”

“The chance to be exposed to these things at an earlier age to build confidence is huge,” adds Rachel Zilinskas, a PhD student who led the development of the site. “They might be inspired to go into a career they didn’t originally think they could pursue.”