Teaching R to High School Students

Press release

Thirteen high school students from across the state participated in this year’s Data Analytics Camp at South Dakota State University (SDSU) main campus from June 18th to 21st, 2018. There were six girls and seven boys. The students lived in college student’s dorms for four days. Most learning activities were in a computer lab in Solberg Hall. As most college students are away during the summer, the high school students got to use a lot of facilities and services. Funding from National Science Foundation (NSF) enabled us to provide lodging, food, and all activities free of charge to the students. The goal of this camp is to promote STEM education, especially in girls.

The students learned programming in the R language to analyze data and created web applications. Instead of the traditional way of explaining the data structures and rules, I followed learning from example approach. I just showed them examples of how I use R to analyze data. After 5 hours of a crash course, the students wrote their own code to solve real problems for their project.

The presentations of their projects on Thursday went well, and they achieved a lot during a very short amount of time. They found many interesting data sets online. They analyzed data sets related to the climate, video game sales, exoplanets, high-school debates, and wars. Using the Shiny technology that can turn R code into web apps, some students created websites. The Video Game Sales App shows that correlation between critics score and sales varies significantly among genres. The Wars of the World reveals the statistics of wars from 1800s to today. The State Temperature app shows the historical temperatures recordings across the world.

Although not online yet, the Debate Spyder app is a complex Shiny app created by 4 students from Brookings High School. Complete with user log-in and password, it enables students to retrieve debate data from a national database, analyze their opponent and calculates a threat score. Even though one of the team members has programming experience with other languages, it is remarkable that a group of high school students with zero programming experience in R can accomplish something like this in just three and half days. The website is practically useful to any students that participate in debates.

The ability for young minds to learn coding to solve problems so quickly is truly amazing. The project-lead strategy obviously helps. Another factor is that these students are probably all self-selected star students from their schools. They were well-behaved, motivated, and engaged in the classroom and beyond. Amidst many depressing and confusing news headlines these days, interacting with this group of students made me feel hopeful about our future.

Between classes, we invite guest speakers working in analytics related fields. Dr. Kurt Cogswell, head of the Math/Stat department, talked about how Data Scientists consistently ranked #1 in the best jobs by various career websites. Ms. Kelly Crevier, Business Intelligence Manager at First Bank and Trust, talked about how analytics help make her employer be more efficient and detect frauds. Dr. Valerie Bares, Senior Biostatistician at Sanford Research, drove down from Sioux Falls to discuss how she used mathematics and statistics to help find cures and treatments for various diseases. She also demonstrated a Shiny app for collecting survey data. We purposely invited these two women as local role models for girls towards STEM fields. Dr. Cedric Neumann, assistant professor at SDSU Math/Stat department, talked about how math and analytics help solve crimes by analyzing fingerprints. Dr. Gary Hatfield, Associate Professor in the department, spoke about how spatial data are gathered and took the students on a walk across the campus using GPS coordinates. Dr. Teresa Hall, head of the Construction Management Department, arranged a tour of the engineering facilities, including cool 3D printers.

The students spend as much time doing fun activities as they do in the classroom. Some activities reinforce statistics concepts. They counted chocolate chips on cookies and analyzed the difference between two brands of cookies. They observed the statistical difference in their pulses before and after climbing the campanile. Other fun activities include twisting balloons and climbing the rock wall in the wellness center. They also visited the dairy bar and enjoyed world famous SDSU ice cream. Tuesday night is the movie night, and they enjoyed a movie at the Brookings Cinema 5 theatre. On Wednesday night, some watched a play at the Prairie Repertory Theatre.

Dr. Adam Hoppe, Director of the BioSNTR that directly funded this camp, gave closing remarks and presented awards for students.

As their instructor, I also learned a lot from them. As they used some of the advanced techniques after showing an example, I will change the way how I teach my class on R programming for undergraduate and graduate students. Many of the datasets they found will be used in my class this fall.

“If you can learn this much in three and half days, what can you potentially achieve during the rest of this summer? Don’t just watch Netflix, go save the world!” This was my challenge to them at the end.

After the camp, some students said that this camp made them think differently about their career path.

Bill Alsaker, an instructor in the department, is an essential part of the camp helping everything from chaperone at the dorm, teach how to use Excel to statistics activities. Linda Wendt and Jianli Qi, Becky Pistulka helped tremendously in advertising, communications, food, and lodging.

Next year’s camp will be announced at a Facebook page:

The camp is supported by BioSNTR, an NSF-funded virtual research center part of SD EPSCoR, with help from the Department Mathematics and Statistics.


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