UniServe€Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol. 3, March 1996

# Teaching data analysis techniques

*Les Kirkup*

### Introduction

Fundamental advances in the physical sciences rely heavily on the
insights that carefully designed experiments can provide. Much insight is
gained by extracting, evaluating and analysing data from experiments. We want
our students to develop confidence and facility in handling experimental data
early in their undergraduate careers. Equally, we recognise that teaching data
analysis techniques represents something of a challenge. In the first place
students often perceive the study of such topics as `outside' the mainstream of
the courses "I want to be a chemist - I don't want to play with numbers!".
Additionally, much material available for teaching analysis techniques
describes contexts which have little to do with science and, due to the
overseas origin of the material, sometimes reveals a distracting national
`slant'.

### Development of an integrated teaching package

With the support of a CAUT grant, our aim is to re-evaluate the teaching
of data analysis techniques and, in particular, to create a package which
exploits contemporary media available in the most appropriate manner for
improving teaching and learning. For example, a short video can be an
excellent way of introducing a topic and for offering context rich situations
in which particular analysis techniques are used. By contrast, a video is
generally less appropriate when the minute details of the derivation of some
pivotal equation are to be discussed.
A very important analysis technique used in the physical sciences and the first
to be treated through this work is that of `least squares' for curve-fitting
data points. The various elements that make up the package (entitled *Where
do you draw the line?*) were trialed with students in 1995. The package
consists of:

* **A video** offering an overview of the technique of least squares
beginning with an illustration of the comparative worth of qualitative and
quantitative knowledge in the physical sciences. The technique is described
graphically and non-mathematically. The video is suitable for use in the
classroom as well as for self-study by the student.

* **A student booklet** expanding upon and consolidating details presented
in the video. In particular the booklet provides necessary background
information and introduces unweighted and weighted least squares as well as the
role of residuals in establishing `goodness of fit'. The booklet also acts as
a signpost to reference material which will assist in understanding specific
points raised and is a resource of useful equations and worked examples. The
use of spreadsheets for least squares analysis (with examples and exercises) is
also dealt with at some length.

* **An instructors booklet** containing suggestions for use of the package
as well as answers to most of the problems/exercises appearing in the student
booklet.

* **A disc for PCs** containing examples of spreadsheet layouts (using Excel
5) for least squares analysis as discussed in the students booklet as well as
data in ASCII format that may be read by any spreadsheet.

### Conclusion

As scientists we find the analysis of experimental data an absorbing and
rewarding occupation. We wish for our students to experience similar dividends
when analysing experimental data and to communicate in a more compelling manner
the role that data analysis plays in the professional life of a physical
scientist. Accordingly, we have developed an innovative mixed media package
sympathetic to the needs and interests of physical science students. Though
the elements mentioned here have been trialed, it is too early for a thorough
evaluation of responses to the innovations. First responses from students and
staff to the developments have been favourable, but a long term evaluation of
the impact on learning and teaching in this important area remains to be
done.
*Les Kirkup*

kirkup@phys.uts.edu.au

*Les Kirkup is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Applied Physics
at the University of Technology, Sydney.*

It is anticipated that the package will be available for evaluation by
May 1996. |