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College of Arts and Sciences

USC class goes beyond the books to study stats history

Last spring, statistics professor David Hitchcock taught a new course on the history of statistics. The class proved so popular with students that he has published an article in The American Statistician, with hopes of inspiring other educators to create similar courses. 

Group photo of the History of Statistics class in 2023
The 2023 History of Statistics class sent this photo with their congratulations to the legendary statistician C.R. Rao after he won the 2023 International Prize in Statistics. 

History of Probability and Statistics offered students from the Honors College and the College of Arts and Sciences an overview of the people and experiments that led to the development of the field of statistics, from the early pioneers of the 17th century to the innovators of the modern era. 

Why study the history of statistics 

  • Scholars say understanding the history of statistics inspires students to learn the concepts because they get to know the people behind statistical methods. 
  • “The class is a reminder that statistics is living, breathing and evolving. The concepts we learn in statistics are quite recent developments, and the course makes me feel connected to my statistical ancestors,” says Christian Dunlap, 2024 B.S., statistics. 
  • Learning the history also helps students feel less intimidated by data analysis because they understand how these methods were developed and the mistakes made by famous statisticians in the process. 
  • “When students learn about the historical backgrounds of methods they study in their other classes and the personalities of the developers of those methods, it grants them a deeper understanding of how those methods fit in the broad array of statistical science,” Hitchcock says. 

 Special features of the class 

  • Hitchcock engaged the class through lively group discussions, student presentations and hands-on activities to recreate statistical experiments throughout history. 
  • Students especially enjoyed guest speakers, as notable statisticians joined the class remotely to share their direct experience with contemporary stats history. 
  • The class formed a special bond with C.R. Rao, who co-discovered a theorem essential to estimation. Rao, who died in August 2023, was 102 at the time of the class, but the students got to know him through stories from guest speakers who worked with him. 

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