UTEP Math Students Apply Research to Community Issues

Students enrolled in Amy Wagler’s statistics class can expect to put their skills to the test. The statistician has her Applied Regression Analysis students apply their statistics research and problem-solving work to actual community issues.

“Community-engaged statistics projects are a teaching strategy that can create connections between students … and community advocates,” Wagler said. “These projects make this connection by facilitating learning statistical concepts while seeing community needs through a statistical lens.”

The most recent project for Wagler’s class, undertaken during the fall 2016 semester, involved research studies to understand how proximity to green or open space, specifically Castner Range, affects property valuation in El Paso.

“There is no local data available regarding homes near open spaces,” said Janae’ Reneaud Field, executive director with The Frontera Land Alliance, a nonprofit organization leading preservation efforts for Castner Range. “Data the students collected helps us understand the value of Castner Range from another perspective.”

The students were responsible for gathering data from neighboring homes, processing information, coding and presenting the findings.

In their results, students found a relationship between green space and the closing price of homes in the targeted region. However, it was not a simple linear relationship. The data indicated that proximity to green space positively affects housing prices when the house has refrigerated air. Students interpreted these results to indicate that when a house does not have refrigerated air, and is presumably an older home, being closer to green space does not affect the house value.

But when the house has refrigerated air, it increases the house value. This is important information for local developers, who can use it to make informed decisions about including natural areas in planned communities in the future. The project also helped students understand how their learning is connected to real life and can be used to impact their community.

“Often we, as students, wonder how the things we learn in class will become beneficial to us in our future jobs,” said senior math major Marcela Martinez. “Research is a huge part of what our future holds. We often become intimidated by the thought of statistical research and all the factors that come with it, such as coding and what the outcomes of that code mean.”

Senior math major Karla Martinez found it interesting to see how the concepts she learned in regression analysis could be used to further research related to community issues. Regression analysis is used to explore the relationship between something that is predicted and a set of variables that help explain that predicted value.

While rewarding, students agree the project was challenging and required dedication.

“My group members and I encountered some challenges, such as trying to gather and model our results,” Karla Martinez said. “The coding process was rather difficult due to the fact that the (coding) language was fairly new to us.”

“There is a perceived disconnect between what is typically learned in a statistics class and community and civic concerns,” Wagler explained. “Many students do not see how statistical analysis is a skill that can be used to address and improve upon issues society faces. Similarly, community members widely perceive statistical analysis to be inaccessible and difficult to understand. Finding a way to bridge this disconnect and facilitate a relationship between statistics students and community agencies is essential.”

The experience made a difference in engagement for senior April Torres. She expects to graduate in December 2017 with a degree in mathematics and a minor in secondary education.

“It was interesting to see all the content we were learning in class being applied to a real world scenario, and being able to present our results from the analysis that our own groups developed gave a sense of ownership to the project,” Torres said. “The project helped me understand the content learned from class better than if I had to just do assigned homework all semester, and I got to see what the life of a professional statistician was like.”

Reneaud Field was impressed with the students’ work and already has plans to work with different departments at UTEP on future projects.

“Our mission is preservation of land and water, farms and ranches – that’s our goal and that’s what we look at,” she said. “As a community partner, we see how the students communicate, and their data makes us aware of another perspective.”

Author: Lauren Macias-Cervantes – UTEP Communications