Dr Lee Fawcett, a statistics lecturer in the School of Mathematics, Statistics & Physics at Newcastle University, is the current RSS William Guy lecturer.
He is currently taking his lecture ‘The Storm of the Century! Using data to anticipate extreme climate events’, to schools around the UK, where he introduces the insights that statistics can provide in understanding extreme weather events.
Could you tell us a little about the content of your lecture ‘The Storm of the Century!’?
It examines the role of extreme value theory in the estimation of environmental extremes. I demonstrate the use of one particular extreme value model – the Gumbel distribution – in estimating extreme sea-surge in the Gulf of Mexico. The main dataset consists of annual maximum sea levels observed at a location just south of New Orleans, USA, between 1955-2004 inclusive. We use these data – and the Gumbel distribution – to assess whether or not the sea-surge as a result of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, could have realistically been anticipated.
The talk includes quite a bit of background information, and LOTS of graphics and facts and figures. We look at where headlines like 'The Storm of the Century!' might come from, and how statistics can be used in a practical way to aid the design of structures such as sea walls.
How is engaging with young people different to engaging with adults?
Delivering a talk to young people varies hugely, depending on the age of the audience! Children in Years 6-7 get enthusiastic about 'exciting' applications of statistics, especially if it relates to something they have recently learned about at school or heard about on TV. In my 'Storm of the Century!' talk I like to use recent examples of storms that I think they might know about, applying simple ideas from their statistics curriculum to data on these storms. Activities are usually better-received with younger audiences if they are interactive – this could be scribbles on a scrap of paper or using a calculator.
Older audiences tend to appreciate a lecture rather than hands-on activities and GCSE and A Level students are often pleasantly surprised to see elements of their statistics curriculum being used in research and real-life applications (eg probability distributions). My outreach talks get very interesting when the audience is a mix of children and adults, and it’s good to see a certain degree of competition take hold between parents and children when I set tasks and activities!
Do you change your lecture according to the age group you’re presenting to?
Yes, I always try to make sure that the lecture includes material relevant to what the students might have recently studied. For example, we can compare tail probabilities obtained from the Gumbel model to those obtained from a Normal distribution, and this usually works well with sixth form students who have recently studied the Normal distribution. Using a Normal distribution suggests the sea-surge observed during Hurricane Katrina might be on par with that we would expect to see once, on average, every thousand years – not once per century, as suggested by the (more appropriate) Gumbel distribution.
Students and teachers are usually very pleased to see a real-world application of the Normal distribution, but sometimes disappointed to learn that in this case it might not be a very good model to use! This paves the way to discussing choice of models for data, and even the flaws in our assumptions when fitting these models (eg independence).
For a younger audience, I try to include more 'hooks', such as news stories and graphics, and I often focus more on the interpretation of probability and the probability scale. Regardless of the age group, audiences are often much more appreciative if they can relate to the material being presented, so I think it’s always a good idea to think carefully about the underpinning motivation and 'story' behind the statistics.
What drew you to apply for the William Guy lectureship?
Almost all of my outreach work has focused on enthusing students about statistics, at partner schools in northeast England. I was extremely excited about the prospect of taking my lecture to other schools, and audiences, outside of my local area.
Are you involved in any other public engagement roles?
I have used the content of my William Guy lecture in lots of arenas, such as the Royal Institution’s annual Inspirational Lecture that celebrates the end of the Teesside Mathematics Masterclass series. I also delivered hands-on statistics sessions at events organised by Advanced Mathematics Support Programme, a government initiative aimed at increasing participation in mathematics beyond GCSE. Recently, I have been working with local school teachers to help promote statistical literacy, especially subject non-specialists required to teach statistics as part of another subject - such as biology.
Are there any upcoming lectures that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’m presenting to around 200 students at Sunderland University in September, which I’m really looking forward to, as the audience will be a mix of ages and unexpected debates between parents/teachers and children sometimes ensue! I recently presented to a large group of year nine students in Plymouth. That was a fantastic event – the students had just completed a series of Royal Institution Masterclasses so were extremely motivated!