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Term Syllabus
( Welcome to Chance!, Organization, Discussion Groups, Journals, Homework, Final Project, Chance Fair, Grades, Resources )
Term Schedule
Homework Assignments
Classroom Demos

[ You can also download a printable copy of the syllabus as a PostScript or PDF file. ]

There are three kinds of lies---lies, damn lies, and statistics. --- Mark Twain

Chance is an unconventional math course. The standard elementary math course develops a body of mathematics in a systematic way and gives some highly simplified real-world example in the hope of suggesting the importance of the subject. In Chance we will choose serious applications of statistics and probability and make these the focus of the course, developing concepts in probability and statistics only to the extent necessary to understand the applications. The goal is to make you better able to come to your own conclusions about news stories involving chance issues.

Topics that might be covered in Chance include:

• Health risks of electric and magnetic fields;
• Statistics, expert witnesses, and the courts;
• The use of DNA fingerprinting in the courts;
• Randomized clinical trials in assessing risk;
• The role of statistics in the study of epidemics;
• Paradoxes of probability and statistics;
• Fallacies in human statistical reasoning;
• The stock market and the random walk process;
• Demographic variations in recommended medical treatments;
• Informed patient decision making;
• Coincidences;
• The reliability of political polls;
• Card shuffling, lotteries, and other gambling issues;
• Scoring streaks and records in sports.

During the course, we will choose a variety of topics to discuss, with special emphasis on topics currently in the news. We might start by reading a newspaper account of the topic in a newspaper like the New York Times or the Boston Globe. We might then read other accounts of the subject, including perhaps articles from journals like Chance Magazine, Science, Nature, and Scientific American, and also original journal articles. We might supplement these articles with readings on basic probability and statistics relate to the topic, or with computer simulations and statistical demonstrations to better illustrate the relevant theoretical concepts.

The class will differ from traditional math classes in organization as well as in content. The class meetings will emphasize group discussions, rather than the more traditional lecture format. Students will keep journals to record their thoughts and questions.. Additional homework will be assigned weekly. There will be a major final project in place of a final exam.

Discussions are central to the course and usually focus on a current article in the news. They provide a context in which to explore questions in more depth and understand material better by explaining it to others. Due to the interactive nature of the course, you will be expected to come to class and to engage whole-heartedly in the discussions.

Every member of each group is expected to take part in these discussions. Each of you also have a responsibility to make sure that everyone is involved, that everyone is being heard, everyone is listening, that the discussion is not dominated by one person, that everyone understands what is going on, and that the group sticks to the subject.

Each participant should keep a journal for the course, which is separate from the weekly homework assignments. A good journal should answer questions asked (and left unanswered) in class and should include

• specific assignments that you have been asked to do for your journal. These will include questions, usually related to the current day's discussion, about which you are asked to think and write, and so on; and
• general comments about the class: things you don't understand; things you finally do understand; comments about the structure or effectiveness of the classroom environment; and so on.
Principally, a good journal should also provide evidence that you have spent some time thinking about questions of your own. There should be evidence of original thought, evidence that you have spent some time thinking about things that you weren't specifically asked about. For example, this might take the form of
• news articles about topics relevant to the course together with comments on them; questions for the instructors; connections between what went on in class and experiences in your own life; a detailed description of a trip you took to a casino; or
• anything interesting and imaginative about a chance-related topic.
In writing your journal, exposition is important. If you are presenting the answer to a questions, explain what the questions is. If you are giving an argument, explain what the point is before you launch into it. What you should aim for is something that could communicate to a friend or colleague a coherent idea of what you have been thinking and doing in the course.

We encourage you to cooperate with each other in working on anything in the course, but what you put in your journal should be your own, alone. If you include something that has emerged from work with other people, write down with whom you have worked. Ideas that come from other people should be given proper attribution. If you have referred to sources other than the textbook for the course, cite them.

Your journal should be kept on loose-leaf paper or in electronic form. Journals will be collected each Tuesday to be read and commented upon. If they are on loose-leaf paper, you can hand in the parts which have not yet been read, while continuing to work on further entries. Similarly, if they are in an electronic form, you can print out the parts that have not yet been read, while continuing to work on further entries. Please remember to write your name on your journal and to write your name on each part of your journal you hand in.

Each part of your journal which is handed in will be graded on a scale of 0 to 3. The numbers have roughly the following meanings:

 0 No journal was handed in, or what was handed in was in no way acceptable. 1 The journal entries lacked any demonstration of original or independent thought. 2 The journal entries were acceptable, demonstrating an adequate amount of original thinking on topics relevant to the course. 3 The journal entries were exceptionally thoughtful or insightful, exhibiting extensive independent thinking on topics relevant to the course.

To supplement the discussion in class and assignments to be written about in your journals, we will assign readings from Statistics by Freedman, Pisani, and Purvis, as well as accompanying written homework. Then you write the solutions to these homework problems, you should keep them separate from your journals. Homework assignments will be given once a week and should be handed in on Tuesdays.

Each homework assignment will be graded on a scale of 0 to 5. The numbers have roughly the following meanings:

 0 No homework was handed in. 1 Many or most problems were not executed correctly, and exposition was poor to non-existent. 2 Many problems were incorrectly executed, or exposition was quite poor. 3 Almost all of the problems were correctly executed, but poor exposition made grading difficult at best. 4 All the problems were correctly executed and adequately exposited. 5 All the problems were correctly executed and thoughtfully organized and explained.

We will not have a final exam for the course, but in its place, you will undertake a major project. Under the guidance of the instructors, you will design and carry out your own statistical study. Some examples of previous projects can be found in the Chance Database. However, you are encouraged to invent your own ideas for projects. As the time to begin organizing and planning you projects approaches, more details about final projects will be forthcoming.

At the end of the course we will hold a Chance Fair, where you will have the opportunity to present your final project to the class as a whole. The Fair will be held during the final examination time assigned by the registrar.