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Not As Bad As It Seems: Teaching Probability And Statistics In Civil Engineering

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2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

Emerging Trends in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.949.1 - 9.949.6

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Paper Authors

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Doug Schmucker Trine University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 1793

Not as bad as it seems: Teaching Probability and Statistics in Civil Engineering Douglas G. Schmucker Western Kentucky University

Abstract Most engineering students dread the day they take probability and statistics. This paper documents a project-based, learn-by-doing approach that provides the vehicle for teaching the analytical skills of probability and statistics. Through this project, students also engage in the engineering design and construction process doing so with realistic engineering constraints. This approach also provides opportunities for discussions related to societal, environmental, and ethical issues. All of this is geared towards the sophomore level and thus allows for realistic design early in the curriculum at the same time it reinforces prior knowledge and introduces new technical content.

The Problem Probability and statistics are perhaps one of the most commonly found yet least understood topics in most engineering programs. Sure, a large number of students successfully pass their probability and statistics courses. Some even are successful at applying the course information to subsequent courses and eventually in their professional work.

But ask the typical engineer “on the street” to interpret the outcome of the 2001 Major League Baseball World Series. The Arizona Diamondbacks won the contest with a “thrilling and dramatic” bottom-of-the-ninth rally. Little could have been more dramatic except unless there had been two outs instead of one. When informally surveyed, most students in a sophomore- level probability and statistics course found this to be “one of the best world series ever.”

When prompted to explain why the Diamondbacks won, few thought critically about the application of variability and uncertainty; even fewer paused to consider basic probabilistic models to shed light on the outcome, perhaps even in a Bayesian manner. Instead, interpretations and explanations of the outcome tended to focus on a team or player being “the better one that day.” Most even thought the Diamondbacks would have been clearly the dominant team had they won in four straight games instead of seven. Explanations tended to include everything but the notions of variability and uncertainty, especially if the respondent was a fan of the winner.

In Bloom’s taxonomy1 parlance, students were performing at best on the application level when synthesis and evaluation levels would have been preferable. When students were prompted with similar engineering-based scenarios, there were responses were much the same. That is, there was a clear ceiling in the students’ mastery of the course material that did not extend beyond the application level. Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education

Schmucker, D. (2004, June), Not As Bad As It Seems: Teaching Probability And Statistics In Civil Engineering Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah.

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