Penguin Poo

You’re probably reading this because the title ‘Penguin Poo’ piqued your interest just like it did for the group of scholars and scholar alumni at the Scholar’s CPD Workshop in Birmingham on 8 June 2019.  The session was officially called ‘Showcasing Statistics’, but I imagine that wouldn’t have been half as enticing.

Having been hooked by the promise of penguin poo, we were enthralled for 90 minutes by a couple of super-enthusiastic statisticians, Dr Laura Bonnett and Dr Simon White, on a quest to improve the nation’s statistical literacy.  We live in a world where we are bombarded by data and statistics on a daily basis.  However, they lamented that a lot of these statistics are misinterpreted or badly presented in the first place, both deliberately for sensational effect and inadvertently due to inexpertise. What is needed is a population that can ‘critically appraise and reason with data’.

So how is penguin poo going to help improve statistical literacy?  The subject comes up in one of several brilliant activities from the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) website (RSS hands on activities) available to teachers FREE of charge!  The only cost is your time to download the activities and prepare how you’re actually going to use them in your lessons.  So don’t delay, join RSS as an e-Teacher today. 

Working in groups of 3 or 4, we had to estimate the size of an Emperor Penguin colony using a satellite image of stained snow on Antarctica and a sample of representative penguins, including their respective annual poo production (in M2).  We were then invited to delve a little deeper and explore the implications of sampling the data in different ways and how that might affect our answers.  Although important that calculations were done correctly, it wasn’t really about getting the right answer, more how you conduct a statistical activity.  If the numbers used are manipulated and more or less guidance is given as required, you can make this accessible to a very wide age range (including teachers).  As well as the links to real-life scenarios, it is this adaptability that makes these activities so good.

The next activity was something altogether more serious.  We needed to establish optimum doses of radiation in order to kill off tumour cells while harming as few good cells as possible.  In reality, this is a highly complex problem that cannot be solved by a classroom experiment.  However, with a bit of simplification, we were able to conduct a simulation that demonstrated how this problem could be approached.  And so for the next 10 minutes, all you could hear was the sound of dice being rolled and scores announced as we tried to kill off tumour cells by getting the ‘right’ numbers on our dice.  The results from our collective efforts were then compiled using computerised data entry and the best treatment from the options we simulated was established.  A computerised simulation supported our results, although one of the scholars was not wholly convinced!  While this activity may not work for quite as wide a range of ages as the first one, it is still eminently accessible and the real-life implications will provide additional motivation.

If all this fun wasn’t enough to convince us statistics is the best part of maths, we were then bribed with an attractive array of badges and stickers.  I was already convinced, but happy to take the bribe anyway.  It’s now up to us to further spread the message and stimulate our students with these engaging statistics activities.  So the next time penguins come up in conversation, just drop in how their poo is used to count how many there are!!

By Steve McEvoy