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The Value of Learning R

Published: February 28, 2016 — Written By: Chris DeProspo

In the 21st century, the cultivation of analytical thinking skills—the hallmark of the aliberal arts education—should also extend to the ability to collect and interpret data that will yield insights on the core problems facing our society and world. Not all data are quantitative, but more of the world is being quantified. Furthermore, some of the best-paying and most satisfying jobs in today’s economy demand data analysis in addition to analytical thinking and writing skills. These requirements are ubiquitous in many of the post-graduation options favored by W&M alums in the social sciences, and grad school, policy or/ think tank jobs, consulting jobs, and campaign work frequently demand quantitative data skills.

At W&M, data science is increasingly being integrated into the curricula of fields across campus. For example, one of Dr. Dan Runfola’s goals as the geospatial scientist for AidData is melding “data science” and social science curriculums, a worthy endeavor given the growing importance of data analytics in professional and academic spheres.
Furthermore, W&M began offering college freshman the option to take specific data study courses to help prepare students for the world’s increased reliance on data studies.

Statistics courses do not simply lie within the domain of math majors either: Computer Science, Business, natural sciences, and Government majors all need to have a well-rounded understanding of data science to succeed in the professional sphere.

With these aims in mind, Professor Settle has held a series of workshops in learning the software program R, most recently with an “Advanced R Workshop” held the past two weeks. Professor Settle is proficient in R, and her workshop will be a valuable asset to anyone looking to learn this program or become more familiar with it.

Therefore, R is an excellent program for someone looking to become well-versed in data science. Although a number of computer programs are useful for data studies, “R provides an Open Source route to participation in that activity.” The benefits of this nature are listed below.

Why use R?

R is an open source program, meaning that it is both free to users and constantly updated by these same users (they generate new packages and functionalities in the program). Furthermore, R is free to update, so your access won’t disappear or become outdated once you graduate. With that in mind, R is a valuable short and long term asset for W&M students and graduates alike.

Because R is open source, one can easily learn about it online, as a vast amount of information can be found on its website and beyond(https://www.r-project.org/). Gaining an intermediary knowledge of R is not a hefty investment, but it is valuable. The R website lists a number of R’s benefits: “As an interactive language, R promotes experimentation and exploration, which improves data analysis and often leads to discoveries that wouldn’t be made otherwise” (https://www.r-project.org/). For a researcher looking to differentiate his/her research, R is an excellent avenue to do so.

Furthermore, R is flexible. Many jobs centered on social science degrees favor quantitative data analysis, and people from a wide variety of disciplines use it and have developed tools and applications for it. For an undergraduate or graduate student interested in a career involving quantitative data, R is a resume-builder, one with a wide range of benefits.

On the visual side, R makes beautiful graphics, and with R, you can produce a wide variety of powerful visualizations to complement the data you gathered in order to tell a story.

(Credit: http://screenshots.en.sftcdn.net/en/scrn/69000/69379/3_Untitled_7.jpg)

Given that R is both widely-used throughout the professional and academic world and can be quickly learned by its users, W&M students should take advantage of the SSRMC’s resources to learn R.


Profiling the Omnibus Part 4: The Scope and Scale of the Project

Published: December 18, 2015

The SSRMC has seemed strangely quiet since the last Omnibus Project research subject of the semester passed through its doors on December 4th. Between October 15th and the last day of classes, 369 subjects spent an average of 45 minutes in the SSRMC as research subjects. The center was the site of 30 hours of proctoring each week, and two proctors were needed to run the project at all times. All told, research assistants affiliated with the project spent more than 500 hours executing it, an enormous undertaking.

Three students benefitted directly from the ability to collect their own data for their honors theses. In a survey experiment, Duenya Hassan sought to measure the effectiveness of counter-narratives to reduce the appeal of terrorist groups. Ming Siegel studied the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States, a term that Pew Research reports have applied to atheists, agnostics and Americans who affiliated with nothing in particular. The Omnibus Project allowed her to survey college-aged Millennials, who are statistically more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than members of older generations. John Stuart’s honors thesis looks at the role emotions play in support or opposition for certain political policies. Omnibus participants answered survey questions online about their political attitudes, behavior, and ideology. Following this they came into the SSRMC and were hooked up to equipment that measured how they responded physiologically to stimuli (photos and videos) that triggered specific emotions.

The Omnibus would not be possible without the participation of classes in the government department. This year, 12 faculty members incentivized their students to participate. Participation rates were very high: 87.4% of the 178 eligible students who were required to participate did so, as did 63.6% of the 352 students who were eligible to receive extra credit for their participation.

During the spring 2016 semester, the Omnibus will be conducted entirely online. In lieu of proctoring in the lab, the SSRMC will host workshops on learning the skills necessary to conduct research on the Omnibus, including using the software program Qualtrics and best practices for survey design.


Profiling the Omnibus Part 3: A Conversation with the Fall Faculty Director, Jaime Settle

Published: December 7, 2015

While the student director of the Omnibus Project is largely responsible for its day-to-day operations, each semester, one of the co-directors of the SSRMC helps oversee the project and serves as a liaison with the faculty. This semester, Jaime Settle served in that role. We spoke with her about the origins, benefits, and future trajectory of the Omnibus Project.

Q: What was your inspiration for starting the Omnibus project?

A: Political science departments that have graduate programs often have subject pools similar to the Omnibus, and when I was a graduate student at UC San Diego, my advisor and a friend of mine were the ones responsible for getting it started there. I’d seen what a difference it made for graduate students at UCSD, and I thought it could be equally valuable here, given the high quality research project ideas that W&M students develop. There had already been interest in this idea before I arrived, and other professors in the department were very supportive of it, so all that was needed was to get it off the ground.

Q: What were some of the biggest hurdles or problems you faced in getting the Omnibus off of the ground?

A: I would say that without the financial support of the Government Department and the Charles Center and the encouragement and involvement of my colleagues, the project wouldn’t be possible. All of the researchers who use the Omnibus are very appreciative of the extent to which it has become institutionalized in the department.

Administering a student subject pool with over 500 eligible subjects a semester is a very logistically complicated endeavor, and the bulk of the task is carried out by the student director each year. We’ve been fortunate to have incredibly bright, organized and detail-oriented student directors so far, but I’d say that identifying students who are a good fit for the position is one of the most important and potentially challenging aspects of the project.

Q: How has your students’ research benefited from the Omnibus?

A: Tremendously! Four of my five honors students have used the Omnibus to collect data for their own work, in addition to several students working with other faculty members over the past few years. Designing an experiment and collecting data makes for an extremely time intensive honors project, but the payoff can be very high: one of these projects currently has a “revise and resubmit” at a well-respected journal, and two others have won the Warner Moss Prize for the most outstanding thesis in the department. Most importantly, I think the presence of the Omnibus encourages student creativity and stimulates student interest in doing independent research because the work of their peers becomes more visible and accessible.

Q: How does the Omnibus change the way that W&M students do research?

1-3445-minA: W&M students are able to ask research questions and design projects that would otherwise be infeasible. While there are many legitimate criticisms about how results found in a convenience sample of undergraduate students can generalize to the broader population, there is no replacement for having an easily accessible pool of subjects for conducting experiments. Experimental research can be a very costly endeavor, and the Omnibus Project reduces those costs for individual researchers to “lower the barrier to entry” for collecting data.

Q: What is the future direction of the Omnibus? What is the big picture plan over the next few years?

A: I think the longer term vision is to further develop the infrastructure of the project so that we can accommodate more research proposals each year. Ideally, we’d have more students involved in the administration of the Omnibus so that we could collect data in the lab during both semesters. I would also say that we’d like to be able to better accommodate faculty who are interested in collecting data as part of a class project. To date that has been difficult because of timing issues, but in the future, I’ think that would be a real service to the department.


Profiling the Omnibus Part 2: A Conversation with the Student Director, John Stuart

Published: November 10, 2015

For the second installment of our series profiling the Omnibus Project, we spoke with the Omnibus Student Director, John Stuart. John is senior at the College, double majoring in Government and Linguistics.

DSC_0369As the Student Director, John is the behind-the-scenes force that drives the Omnibus. From creating the protocol for proctoring experiments, to scheduling participants, to disseminating the data back to researchers, John has a hand in it all. His work is critical to the success of the Omnibus. He was kind enough to take the time out of his busy schedule to have the following conversation about his role.

Q: How did you become Student Director of the Omnibus Project?

A: I became the Student Director of the Omnibus Project due to my previous involvement in the SNaPP Lab. Though I became the Student Director in the Spring 2015 semester, I had performed various tasks that make up some of responsibilities of the Student Director…prior to assuming the position. The previous summer, Professor Settle (the Director of the SNaPP Lab and co-Director of the SSRMC) was conducting pilot testing of a research study with older Williamsburg community members serving as study participants. I had handled distributing online surveys to these individuals as well as scheduling them for in-person lab sessions. Additionally, during the Fall 2014 semester the SNaPP Lab research team that I was on assisted a different Omnibus Project student director with some aspects of the role, such as the logistics of the proctoring schedule and the scheduling system by which students booked times to come into the lab. In many ways, becoming the student director of the Omnibus Project was a natural continuation of past work I had done in the lab.

Q: How many studies are currently being run from the Omnibus?

A: The Omnibus this semester is collecting data for six studies, from three faculty members and three honors students (myself included in the latter group).

Q: What’s a day in the life of the Student Director like?

A: That’s a really tough question to answer! It really depends on what part of the semester it is. Earlier on [in the Fall], I might be programming project proposals that we’ve received into Qualtrics, the online survey platform we use for part of the Omnibus data collection. After this I communicate back and forth with the researchers whose projects are included in these surveys to make any tweaks or adjustments that are needed. Another day early in the semester could see me pulling together the proctoring schedule if there are studies running that require a lab portion (as usually occurs in the Fall semesters). It’s basically a game of logistical Tetris, but it all works out in the end! The last main early-semester duties the student director fulfills is setting up the online booking system for the included lab studies and drafting the emails that go out to students in participating Government courses.

I also sometimes get asked by faculty with courses participating in the Omnibus to speak to their students about the Omnibus Project, both in terms of what their students will need to do to participate and about the research process as it relates to the Omnibus Project as a whole. Later on in the semester, my main role is pulling together daily schedules for Omnibus participants that come into the SSRMC for lab sessions and sending out reminder emails, and checking the completion rates on the online surveys we’re fielding. Once classes end for the semester, I separate all the data collected into the datasets that will go to each of the researchers for their individual project (anonymizing the data in the process).

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: Despite the unglamorous nature of some of my duties, seeing “behind the curtain” into how this sort of research is executed and how one goes about collecting data for it can be fascinating. The best part of my job is knowing that the Omnibus Project provides a “public good” to students and faculty within the Government Department (and related fields). Without the Omnibus, executing survey and lab-based social science research within the Department would be much more difficult, especially for undergraduate students. The ability to facilitate this sort of research makes the work incredibly meaningful for me, whether it’s for an undergraduate honors thesis, for faculty projects that are being pilot tested, or for faculty projects that are fully fleshed out with an eye to being published based off of the data they collect through the Omnibus.

For more information about the Omnibus Project, visit this link.

If you are interested in submitting a research proposal to the Omnibus Project, visit this link.


What do data science and a liberal arts curriculum have in common?

Published: November 9, 2015

Despite what you might think, they are both a part of the William & Mary experience. Dr. Dan Runfola, the geospatial scientist for AidData at William & Mary, is bringing “data science” to even the humanities and social science students of the College. With the growing industry of data analytics, being able to understand “big data” and how it affects everyday life is becoming increasingly important for the educated population. Big data is relevant in everything from the way our social media platforms operate to how political campaigns target voters to how aid is sent to the areas that need it most. In order to have the greatest impact on the world, college students are going to need to understand the vital concepts that come with thinking about it in a new way. Dr. Runfola’s potential data science minor and its accompanying test case and requirement, a new COLL 100 course, will be able to help.

Although the data science minor is still in the negotiation phase of becoming a reality, Dr. Runfola described some of its key points and the reasoning behind its conception. Primarily, Dr. Runfola needed student researchers for his team when he came to William & Mary in 2014. W&M students are clearly motivated individuals and interested in getting involved, but Runfola noticed a lack of research skills he would usually find in the student body of a college or university with an emphasis on engineering and similar programs. His goal was to prepare students for research opportunities stemming from his role with AidData and his prior experience with large research labs at UC Boulder. He thought about what students would need that was not already available to them, and used the Mason School of Business classes on data in the business as a model during the brainstorming phase to address these gaps. He emphasized that the minor would not create “experts” in the data science fields, but rather students that are familiar enough with key concepts to assist true experts in solving complex problems.

The COLL 100 data course forms the foundation for the data science minor, and is similar to the currently-offered INTR 100 course, “Breaking Intuition.” The course will introduce students to the “big idea” of data science as well as multiple forms of conducting research. It is set up in two-week modules, with each portion devoted to a specific kind of research taught by a professor who is an expert in that field. Students will be exposed to varying ways of using data and will be able to practice the respective research strategies through workshops and labs. Examples of the broad range of topics that data science can be (somewhat surprisingly) relevant to include social justice, the human mind’s tool of intuition, and the effect of algorithms on human behavior. Thus, the COLL 100 course is intended not to attract people already prepared to be computer scientists, but people who have other interests in areas like the environment or psychology or government or, really, anything else. The course will accompany other courses that touch on basic computer science skills, statistics, and probability knowledge, and will be followed by the COLL 200 course that will allow students to partner with actual groups and organizations (what Dr. Runfola called “decision makers”) to conduct research projects in a real world context. These courses and the data science minor will combine a liberal arts background with an introduction to how to think about data in real life, potentially producing some of the world’s most effective and well-equipped problem solvers.


Profiling the Omnibus: Part One

Published: October 25, 2015

This week will begin a multi-part series profiling the SSRMC’s Omnibus Project. The first installment of the series will briefly explain the project and include a brief interview from the project’s newest proctors.

Established in 2013, the Omnibus Project coordinates and streamlines the development of a student subject pool for faculty and student research in the government, public policy, and international relations programs. Researchers can submit project proposals for data collection that are incorporated into the project. Because the Omnibus Project collects data from a pre-existing subject pool, it reduces the administrative hoops researchers must jump through to generate original data. The project has made it easier for student and faculty researchers to carry out original research due to the accessibility of a sizeable subject pool.

Multiple researchers gather data from the Omnibus Project simultaneously. Last year, for example, there were seven student or faculty projects; this year we anticipate at least ten. In order to facilitate data gathering, student proctors are needed to greet subjects when they arrive and guide them through the various protocols taking place each semester. Student proctors are able to gain experience with conducting academic research by administering the Omnibus to the subject pool.

Emily Jackson and Alex Valorose are two new proctors for the project. Both sophomores involved in the PPIR lab, these students recently went through proctor training, led by John Stuart and Edward Hernandez of the SNaPP Lab. Emily and Alex were interviewed during their first official day as proctors. Both agreed that the first day of leading subjects through the Omnibus was stressful. However, with a little practice they believe everything will continue to run smoothly. The initial stress was soon outweighed by both students’ excitement for the upcoming semester of proctoring. Emily Jackson noted how the Omnibus simplifies data collection for all researchers who use it: “It’s cool that so many people are getting so much data from the same project.”

As the semester progresses, the SSRMC will see hundreds of student participants pass through its doors to participate in the Omnibus Project. Data collected by the project and synthesized by the director, John Stuart, will contribute to the research of individual projects, honors theses, and faculty research.

The next installment of the Omnibus profile will include an interview with Student Director John Stuart!


SSRMC Summer Research Students Present Work

Published: October 13, 2015

This summer, eight students completed summer research projects stemming from their work in research groups affiliated with the SSRMC. The final products of their summer research were on display at the Roy R. Charles Summer Research Symposium September 28th through October 2nd. Although the actual poster presentation is just two hours long, the summer research process consists of multiple semesters and requires serious planning and execution. Many SSRMC students began drafting their ideas for summer research the preceding fall semester and worked diligently throughout the spring to further develop their research plans.

SSRMC students covered a wide variety of topics over the summer. Several students describe their research in their own words:

Zarine Kharazian ‘17: “This summer, I conducted a survey experiment to assess whether social endorsement of a political opinion – in this case, on the Ferguson grand jury decision – on an online social network discourages individuals who hold the minority opinion from expressing their view. The project serves as the first study within a larger research effort to 1) develop standard operational definitions for common Facebook behaviors and identify their real-life counterparts; and 2) fully assess the relationship between individual personality traits and online social behavior.”

Yussre ElBardicy ‘16: “This summer, I spent time in the SNaPP Lab working on my honors thesis, titled “A Content Analysis of Egyptian Newspapers.” The data retrieval proved to be extremely difficult due to the nature of many of the newspaper archives as well as the semantic differences between the Arabic and English languages. Thus, I’ve had to overhaul my research design a bit, but I’m making progress!”

Emily Draper ‘16: “During the summer, I began investigating the relationship between gender and agreement in online political discussions. My summer was devoted to analyzing the some 400 million tweets for author gender. The next phase in my research will involve using the Linguistic Inquiry Word Count program, an automated word counting software, to analyze the tweets for agreement.

image00    image01

The first graph shows the gender breakdown for number of tweets in the dataset.” Note the similarity in tweet number between male and female Twitter handles. “The second graph shows the gender breakdown for number tweets that contain the hashtag ‘#politics’.” Here we see a much larger disparity between numbers of male versus female Twitter handles using this hashtag.

Summer research provides students with an opportunity to dive headfirst into a research topic of personal interest, exploring their topic in much more depth than they would in a class or during the semester. Over the summer, students can give their undivided attention to their research and work to create a deliverable of their research covering their progress throughout the summer. These students in particular used summer research as an opportunity to further their long-term research goals, like more in-depth individual projects or honors theses.

As the SSRMC continues to grow, encompassing more research labs and providing training on a wider variety of research methods, the center will continue to support and enable students to pursue summer research opportunities. For students interested in pursuing summer research funding through the Charles Center, please see this link for further instructions.


SSRMC Annual Report is Published

Published: September 7, 2015

The Social Science Research Methods Center recently published an annual report after completing its inaugural year. The report details every aspect of the SSRMC from the collaborative research focused mission to profiling the individual research labs within the center. The SSRMC has seen impressive growth over the past year. Beginning as an abandoned section of the Blow Hall basement, the center has become the bustling home of 46 students who receive academic credit for their research. Currently, the SSRMC is host to three research labs with three separate faculty advisors. The Social Networks and Political Psychology (SNaPP) Lab run by Professor Jamie Settle aims to explore “the biological, psychological, and social underpinnings of political behavior”. Also within the center is Professor Marcus Holmes’ Political Psychology and International Relations Lab, which provides students with the opportunity to explore their interests in international relations through the lens of psychology. Last is Professor Paul Manna’s Research Team. This research group collaborates with researchers from Brown University to study state level education policies.

One of the highlights of the Annual Report is the Omnibus project. The Omnibus helps to “streamline” a student subject pool for research projects conducted by both W&M faculty and students working on research projects or honors theses. The Omnibus subject pool is comprised of undergraduate students in government classes. This initiative gives researchers the opportunity to tap into a ready-made subject pool without having to jump through the hoops involved in collecting original data.

Although the professors who operate within the SSRMC are all from the government department, students in the center have a variety of different majors and interests. Aside from several Government and Public Policy majors, the center is home to students majoring in Computer Science, Linguistics, Psychology, English, Math, Economics, International Relations, and Environmental Science. Students from all academic backgrounds who are interested in building their analytical social science research skills have found a diverse and welcoming research environment in the SSRMC. Collaborating with faculty who are interested in helping students pursue their research passions lets students learn experientially by cultivating original research questions and projects. This research-based learning gives students the opportunity to apply theories and ideas they learn about in class to real research questions. In pursuing their own research interests, students become more invested in their projects and develop analytical skills that cannot be taught in the classroom.

The Annual Report in its entirety can be found here.


SSRMC Hosts Open House

Published: September 7, 2015

Last Friday, September 11, 2015, students in research labs, in independent study programs, and conducting honors theses came to the SSRMC for the first annual fall Open House. The faculty and student directors of the SSRMC welcomed the students with tours of the space, introductions to the SSRMC website and room reservation system, and of course, some edible incentives from Sal’s and copious amounts of Sprite left over from a previous SNaPP lab experiment.

Students came from all sorts of backgrounds in social sciences. The students utilizing the space range from Professor Settle’s political psychology (SNaPP) lab to Professor Holmes’ international relations-focused group. Professors van der Veen, Manna, and Rapoport have student researchers working on still more social science topics. However, research assistants are not the only people who will use the SSRMC this year. The students walking into the SSRMC during the Open House could simply be self-motivated students embarking on their own independent research journeys. Every time a new face came through and we learned why he or she was there, we were given the opportunity to emphasize a different part of the space that would be particularly helpful to them. SNaPP lab members were re-familiarized with the physiological experimentation suite, other groups received emphasis on the whiteboard-painted collaboration rooms ideal for diagraming big ideas, and independent researchers were shown the cozy individual study room that may add some comfort to the hours spent brainstorming the perfect thesis statement.

The broad spectrum of research involvement seen throughout the Open House was representative of exactly what the SSRMC is meant to be: a true home for the social sciences on campus. Multiple students expressed excitement about finally having a place they could call “theirs,” sometimes making direct comparisons to the presence of the ISC for students of the hard sciences. No longer are social science researchers relegated to a cramped room of Morton or forced to find space among the crowded tables of the MEWS café. They now have a place to work both on their own projects and among others interested in the same kind of world-altering questions, fostering William & Mary’s next integrated community of social science scholars.


Deadline for Omnibus Project Proposals

Published: September 6, 2015

The deadline to submit proposals for the Fall 2015 Omnibus Project is this Friday, September 11th. Applications are being accepted from Government, Public Policy, and International Relations majors and faculty. Experiments and surveys will be run from October through December 2015.

The Omnibus streamlines a student subject pool for social science research. The subject pool is made up of undergraduate students enrolled in a government class.

Applications can be found here

Please send all completed applications to John Stuart at: wmgovtomnibus@gmail.com.


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