Higher Education's Positive Influence on Students, Communities, Society

Talithia Williams, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and Keynote Speaker at the upcoming 2017 AIR Forum

Talithia_Williams1.jpgeAIR: How did you get involved in your specialty field, “big data?”

As a kid, I enjoyed math and science and ended up majoring in math as an undergraduate student at Spelman College. But I first became interested in data and statistics in a Biostatistics class I took as a graduate student at Howard University. We analyzed a dataset on the length of a baby’s gestation for smoking and non-smoking mothers and I was immediately hooked! We saw that mothers who smoked during pregnany gave birth to babies with lower birthweights than mothers who didn’t smoke during pregnancy. It was the first time I saw how data could be used to change public policy and bring clarity of understanding to an issue. When I completed my Ph.D. from Rice University, the term “big data” was still in its infancy, but I was well trained and excited about handling large, complicated datasets and revealing new information.  

eAIR: You have a knack for demystifying data and processes to make them relatable. Do you have any tips or suggestions to help all of us ensure that our work is relatable, especially when it comes to using and presenting data?

Absolutely!  Whenever my students give presentations, I tell them they need to be able to explain their data to a tenth grader. In other words, no matter how complicated the data or how detailed the analysis, they should deliver a clear, understandable, and relatable presentation that a typical high school student could understand. Here are three tips I give to my students:

  1. Begin by stating why the information you’re about to present is meaningful and connect the data to the people viewing your presentation.

  2. Visuals should convey the importance of your data and be appealing to the audience’s attention.

  3. When in doubt, keep it simple. Nothing bores a person more than a presentation that’s unnecessarily over their heads. Simplify the statistical details so that everyone can hear your message.

eAIR: In your role as a faculty member, you see how institutional decisions affect the student experience. What opportunities do you see on the horizon for higher education to continue to positively influence students, communities, and society as a whole?

Two areas come to mind. First, colleges and universities should be intentional in their community engagement. We excitedly admit students who have done years of community service, yet we rarely encourage or require them to continue when they reach our campus. Many of my students have had life changing experiences working with members of the local community, whether mentoring elementary students, feeding our homeless population or partnering with our local HIV/AIDS support group. Secondly, we need to better quantify our impact on society. We collect so much data about where our students go and the impact they make, but it doesn’t get shared with the local community. We need creative ways to partner with local constituents (residents, businesses, schools, etc.) to communicate the value of our educational experience.

eAIR: If you could present a TED Talk on any topic—work-related or not—what would it be and why?

My first TED talk was on “Owning Your Body’s Data” and I loved having the opportunity to show how anyone could begin to collect data about their bodies to make better, more informed decisions about their health. If I could give another TED talk, it would be a follow up to the first. Something like, “I own my body’s data. Now what?” I’d love to walk people through what to do now that they’ve collected that data and how they can begin to analyze it to pull out more information.

eAIR: If you were to attend an elementary school career day, how would you convey your enthusiasm for data? For STEM fields?

Elementary students LOVE stories. I have three sons who are all in elementary school now and the quickest way to get them to sit down and be quiet is to say, “Once upon a time…!” The same is true when I communicate my enthusiasm for STEM. I express it in an engaging story that kids can relate to. It also helps to have audience participation and hands-on activities. I usually invite students up on stage to help me with a problem or throw out questions for them to solve on the spot and yell out the answer. Anything that keeps them engaged and excited!

eAIR: You have “made it your life’s work” to get students, parents, educators, and community members excited about STEM education. What have you learned along the way about fostering people’s enthusiasm and garnering their attention?

At the end of the day, people remember how they were engaged and how you made them feel. I often use my personal experience around mathematics and STEM to connect with and inspire others to get excited about STEM education. Most everyone can relate to feeling frustrated at one time or another in a math class. I talk openly about my feelings of frustration, how I persevered in spite of the difficulty, and the joys that (eventually!) came as a result of pushing past those difficulties. People get excited when they can relate their life experience to yours.



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Total Comments: 1
Christine posted on 4/14/2017 10:11 AM
What a great whetting of our appetite for the AIR Keynote! Thanks, and I am really looking forward to her presentation!