The Chicago Police Department wants to know: Is a new training program improving community relations in five high-crime neighborhoods? A medical school asks: Are students getting the right kind of training to treat patients with melancholic depression? A high school participates in a national youth survey to find out: Are our students at risk for certain behaviors, such as bullying or alcohol abuse?
These organizations and others have one thing in common: STATCOM CHICAGO, DePaul’s chapter of Statistics in the Community, a student-run volunteer organization that provides pro bono statistical consulting to local nonprofit, governmental and community service organizations.
Started at Purdue University in 2001, STATCOM was adopted and officially recognized by the American Statistical Association, says Carole Bernett, interim director of the graduate program in applied math and applid statistics and faculty adviser to the DePaul chapter. Ten years ago, DePaul students named their newly hatched chapter STATCOM CHICAGO, inviting other local universities to participate. While that attempt failed, the name stuck, and now DePaul’s is the only chapter in the city.
The 35 DePaul students in STATCOM CHICAGO—most working toward an MS in applied statistics, but some also coming from other programs and departments—are responsible for finding projects, organizing and analyzing large data sets, and making presentations to clients. Not surprisingly, the commitment requires long nights and working weekends. But it’s all worthwhile.
“Through STATCOM, students get an opportunity to work with real-life, messy data—the kind they won’t see in textbooks, but they will find in a job,” Bernett says. “But probably even more important, they learn the principles and practice of teamwork as STATCOM projects typically extend over several months and even years. Those takeaways make our students more skillful and highly marketable.”
Juan Hu, assistant professor in mathematical sciences, agrees: “STATCOM benefits everyone who participates. Students get hands-on experience with different statistical models and analytical techniques, while the organizations they serve may get statistically significant evidence to show their stakeholders that they’re generating value from investments or to use in effective decision-making about policies."
STATCOM students from the graduate program in applied statistics echo these sentiments in their enthusiasm for the organization.
Matt Raimondi (MS ’14) says STATCOM mirrors DePaul’s practice of blending of theory and application. A middle-school teacher before beginning his graduate program, Raimondi was naturally drawn to the STATCOM project to analyze data from a local high school participating in a national youth behavioral risk survey. The project’s aim was to find meaningful insights from the answers of 550 students to a 90-question survey about risky behavior, including driving safety, alcohol, drugs, sex, diet and depression.
“We found things that stood out—things that the school either wasn’t looking for or wasn’t aware of—such as high incidences of drinking and driving. The information we uncovered went above and beyond what the client expected. And the project is continuing with an expanded scope. STATCOM gives students a positive, yet realistic, view of working in this field.”
Angus Yang (MS ’15) was attracted to STATCOM as an opportunity to use statistics in a practical and helpful way while gaining experience in complex analysis and report writing:
“It’s one thing to study analytical methodologies in the classroom and another to put those into practice working on real projects. Each organization has its own objectives, and we have to deal with these in our STATCOM projects. So, our work isn’t just about analytics; it’s about face-to-face interactions with clients. I’m definitely getting out of my comfort zone and learning real-world business skills.”
During his time with STATCOM, Robert Burkot (MS ’13) took on a challenging project: the Heritage Health Prize Competition, a data-mining contest in which the winning team would develop a breakthrough algorithm that uses patient data to predict and prevent unnecessary hospitalizations.
“When I was interviewing for a job after graduation, I was always asked, ‘Have you ever delivered results working on a team?’ ” he recalls. “Because of STATCOM, I could say ‘Yes, definitely, I’ve done that’ and, even more important, I could say that I was pushed to learn new things. STATCOM made me more competitive in the marketplace.”
Bart Phillips (MS ’08), a co-founder of the first STATCOM chapter at DePaul, is now a STATCOM client, using STATCOM students in projects for his not-for-profit organization, Community Building Tutors [cbtutors.org], which provides free tutoring to inner-city kids at Chicago Park District locations. He also recruits STATCOM students for jobs with his employer, a leader in the health care industry. A real believer, Phillips even helped students at the University of Minnesota start a chapter.
“With STATCOM, everyone wins,” he says. “The clients get valuable analytics and the students get great experience and exposure. In fact, I’d say learning to work with the clients is the biggest gain for the students—this is an advantage above and beyond technical skills that makes STATCOM students really valuable in today’s business world where big data is a big deal.”
STATCOM is open to any DePaul student with an interest. “Statistics is touching and changing many, different fields and industries,” says Bernett. “This is just one more way that DePaul is supporting students by giving them opportunities to do original research and become fully prepared for good jobs.”