Statisticians counting on the children: International conference in Melbourne (Media Release)

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March 28, 2007
Statisticians counting on the children: International conference in Melbourne

Australia is playing host this week to an international conference looking at the problem of an expected shortfall in qualified mathematicians and statisticians over the coming years.

The CensusAtSchoolconference, hosted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) at their Melbourne office, is an initiative by several national statistical agencies to promote an interest in mathematics.

According to the Australian Statistician, Brian Pink, who opened the conference on Monday, the primary and secondary school learning package aims to address the shortage of mathematics and statistics graduates from universities worldwide.

"Statistical literacy is an important skill in the information age, and with the baby boomer generation moving into retirement over the next twenty years, we need to make sure that there are enough people who can effectively apply mathematical and statistical methods to take up the slack," he said.

"CensusAtSchoolintroduces mathematics and statistics in an interactive, hands on way; we are hoping that, as well as improving general statistical knowledge it will encourage more students to take up tertiary studies in the field."

The CensusAtSchoolprogram lets students run their own 'mini-census', and includes questions devised by students to help them engage in the process and show them that working with numbers is not a dry and colourless undertaking.

Australia, Canada, the UK, South Africa and New Zealand already have their CensusAtSchool programs running, with the USA, France and Singapore looking at joining in soon.

Each country adds its own questions around a core set of data - for example, the UK asks about football (soccer) teams followed, South Africa asks about access to running water, and Australia asks what the coolest fashion accessory is.

"(Getting students) to gain an appreciation of what the statistical process is about is best done with questions that are relevant to the child," said Jane Watson, Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Tasmania, one of the keynote speakers at the conference and author of the book Statistical Literacy at School.

"Having access to the CensusAtSchoolresource, as well as the support of the ABS - which runs two-day conferences for teachers each year - will create a strong foundation for a teacher's professional development, as well," she said.

The first Australian CensusAtSchoolwas held in 2006 to coincide with the population Census, and over 110,000 students (from nearly a third of Australia's schools) completed the online questionnaire. Since then, the data collected has already answered over 60,000 student queries, on topics as diverse as breakfast foods, belly buttons and mobile phones.
The conference ends on Thursday, 29 March.