Data and Interpretation

So my student numbers for the semester have finally settled down after a couple of weeks of adds and drops.

As it stands I have 61 students in 3 sections.  From these 3 sections, I have the following numbers to report:

61 students
16 women
1 African-American
19 Chinese
1 Korean

Now–that’s just the data–the question becomes–what does the data mean?

Data/facts don’t speak for themselves–they need context.  Some of the context you might want:
1. I teach an engineering course.
2. My course is an upper-level communications course for engineers that is a requirement for most majors.
3. I teach at a renown state university–the flagship university of the state.

Still–given this context–the data remains underdetermined–meaning that you can still make a number of different (and even contradictory) inferences from it.  Some of these might be:
a) Women are under-represented in Engineering.
b) Women’s representation in engineering appears to be climbing.
c) There aren’t enough African-American students
d) The African American representation correlates strongly to the percentage of African Americans in the state coming in with grades necessary to be engineers
e) There are too many foreign students being let in.
f) The university is compensating for declining state funding by bringing in more foreign students, and these just happen to be over-represented in the engineering fields.

All of these inferences might be true (I haven’t actually confirmed all of them)–but they also each may have big holes in them because they only capture a particular viewpoint of the situation.

Data is important–but data is often not enough to grant one understanding–especially if the context and history is not given for it–and the quantity of the data is limited.


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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