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Covid-19 Vaccine Data Used to Teach Statistics to Community College Students

LaGuardia Community College Math Professor Goes Outside the Textbook to Teach Statistics;
Empowering Students to Critically Review Information for Bias and Trustworthiness

February 9, 2021

Dr. Frank Wang Portrait Data from Covid-19 vaccine trials can be used to successfully teach introductory statistics (also known as elementary statistics), according to a new pedagogic paper authored by LaGuardia Community College Professor of Mathematics Frank Wang, Ph.D., published in Numeracy, the premier journal for quantitative reasoning.

“This paper reflects the focus on teaching that is a hallmark of community colleges,” said LaGuardia Community College President Kenneth Adams. “I commend Professor Wang and his colleagues for this research that informs how to help students relate to a mathematical concept they have found challenging. Not only will our students be better able to assess the reliability of data, but they are learning to be critical thinkers—reflecting our college’s mission.”

“Students are regularly exposed to misinformation and disinformation. By presenting the statistical requirements for drug approval by the Food and Drug Administration in a way that is understandable for community college students, I hope to empower students to differentiate truth from falsehood and make sound judgment,” said Dr. Wang.

Courses in introductory statistics typically culminate in learning about hypothesis testing. “However, many students find hypothesis testing to be abstract and alien,” said Dr. Wang. “I’ve spent many years thinking of ways to help students overcome the challenge.”

When Pfizer and Moderna issued Phase III study results of its Covid-19 vaccine in November 2020 (as reported in The New York Times by Denise Grady, Carl Zimmer Rebecca Robbins, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg et al.), Dr. Wang instantly seized on the opportunity to improve students’ statistical thinking skills and worked over the Thanksgiving break to develop a lesson based on the data.

Dr. Wang used the Central Limit Theorem, a key component of statistics, to illustrate why drug makers needed to wait until certain number of volunteers to be Covid-19 positive before the clinical trial result became statistically significant. “Then I used this mathematical fact to refute the conspiracy theory that the late November vaccine availability was politically motivated to influence the presidential election,” said Dr. Wang.

The method involved reframing a 95% efficacy rate with the explanation that for every 100 Covid-19 cases in an unvaccinated community, there would be only 5 infections in a vaccinated community. “The information becomes clear, and the public health consequence is obvious,” said Dr. Wang.

Dr. Wang’s pedagogical method was well-received by students in his course. In a final essay, one student described the statistics course as “a game changer.” The student said Professor Wang powerfully encapsulated the significance of applying statistics to widely reported data from mainstream media. Another student said the course cleared up a lot of number-related confusions for her.

In his conclusion, Dr. Wang noted that vaccine efficacy rates enabled him to “simplify[y] the hypothesis testing so that students with basic statistical training can understand the results and undertake the analysis by themselves. In an era of misinformation and disinformation, numeracy skills empower citizens and help them make better personal and public decisions.”

Dr. Wang admits that his research was partly shaped by self-interest. He enjoys cultural activities in New York City, and was immensely disappointed that all concerts were canceled. He said “he has been dying to see Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in fall 2020 for a long time.” He hopes that by informing citizens of scientific evidence, New Yorkers will overcome the pandemic and can attend live performances soon again.   

Dr. Wang is currently working on a sequel paper, to introduce the modern Bayesian statistics to both LaGuardia students and their peers across the nation and around the world, using Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca-Oxford data. “This would go beyond the classical statistical methods typically covered in elementary statistics courses,” said Dr. Wang.

Dr. Wang’s interest in quantitative reasoning started in 2006 when he and his LaGuardia mathematics colleagues joined a task force called Project Quantum Leap led by then Dean for Academic Affairs and current Provost Paul Arcario. Dr. Arcario suggested that faculty contextualize curriculum to teach math through urgent issues such as public health and climate change, to urban public university students who tend to be under-privileged. Dr. Arcario’s initiative helped LaGuardia students become more motivated to learn mathematics.

After the success of Project Quantum Leap, Dr. Wang was invited by Lehman College Sociology Professor Dr. Esther Wilder, along with Lehman’s Economics Professor Dr. Dene Hurley, to co-lead a National Science Foundation funded program called Numeracy Infusion Course for Higher Education (NICHE). NICHE promotes quantitative reasoning across disciplines through training faculty members from different CUNY campuses. A website they developed provides numerous resources and tools for educators to improve students’ critical thinking skills.

Dr. Wang acknowledges his LaGuardia mathematics faculty colleagues, particularly Drs. Prabha Betne, Anthony Giangrasso, Yun Ye, and Shenglan Yuan, for discussing the Covid-19 vaccine math pedagogical model. He also acknowledges Dr. Abderrazak Belkharraz, Chair of the Department of Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science at LaGuardia Community College, for his support of this project.

Dr. Wang’s research is partly funded by the National Science Foundation, awards #1121844 and #1644975. He has no connection, financial or otherwise, with any pharmaceutical companies.

There is still time to enroll at LaGuardia Community College for the Spring Semester, which starts on March 6, 2021. Apply now at

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LaGuardia Community College, located in Long Island City, Queens, educates thousands of New Yorkers annually through degree, certificate, and continuing education programs. Our guiding principle Dare To Do More reflects our belief in the transformative power of education—not just for individuals, but for our community and our country—creating pathways for achievement and safeguarding the middle class. LaGuardia is a national voice on behalf of community colleges, where half of all U.S. college students study. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), the College reflects the legacy of our namesake, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the former NYC mayor beloved for his championing the underserved. Since our doors opened in 1971, our programs regularly become national models for pushing boundaries to give people of all backgrounds access to a high quality, affordable college education. We invite you to join us in imagining what our students, our community, and our country can become.