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Crocheting the normal distribution: exploring creative public engagement with statistics

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

Unpublished
Publication date2013
Awarding Institution
  • Exeter University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Rappert, Brian, Supervisor, External person
Publisher
  • Exeter University
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Recently there has been a rise in projects adopting a more creative approach to public engagement with science (Gewin, 2013). However this approach has rarely been applied to projects engaging the public with statistics. Given the widespread lack of trust and understanding of statistics (Wallman, 1993; European Commission, 2008) applying a creative approach to public engagement was seen as offering a potentially successful way of challenging these attitudes and improving the public profile of statistics.

To assess the applicability of this creative approach to public engagement with statistics a series of hybrid objects that engaged, and encouraged engagement, with art and statistics were created. The final created objects - Norm and his friends, the crocheted probability distributions – were displayed within an art exhibition allowing visitors’ reactions to the objects to be gathered. In total 138 questionnaire responses were collected along with informal responses noted in a research diary.

A broadly positive reaction from public was recorded towards the created objects, although responses were limited by the visitor’s prior knowledge of the Normal Distribution. Overall the stand improved visitors’ understandings of probability distributions and lowered mathematics anxiety through the use of visual representation, humor, and the interactive and engaging nature of the stand. In particular most felt that Norm and his friends had made statistics more engaging and memorable. Patterns in responses across age, gender, mathematical background and understanding were also explored.

Given the lack of research into this area a series of six considerations and suggestions for other researchers attempting to engage the public with statistics were drawn up. While a creative approach was found to be of use within this project further research into public engagement with, and public understandings of, specifically statistics is essential if current attitudes towards statistics are to be understood and challenged.