Language of learning

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk

Dr. Laura Cayon

Dr. Laura Cayon leads a recent statistics class.


Numbers span all languages and in the Department of Statistics, two sections of Elementary Statistical Methods are planned to be taught bilingually – in English and Spanish – to prove that fact.

An online course and possibly an online/in-class hybrid section both taught by continuing lecturer Dr. Laura Cayon are set to debut in time for the fall semester.

A native of Cantabria in northern Spain, Cayon believes the bilingual aspect of the courses should attract an interesting mix of students.

“I noticed that many, many students are going into the Purdue abroad experience and many are interacting with Latin America nowadays,” Cayon says. “I think those students would benefit from this course. Same with students looking for careers where they will be interacting with Spanish speakers.

“My idea is that this is a statistics course primarily but also the exposure to a different environment and culture.”

An international department

In Fall 2013, the Department of Statistics welcomed students from the United States and:

  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China
  • Hong Kong
  • Iceland
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Jamaica
  • Kazakhstan
  • Malaysia
  • Netherlands
  • Philippines
  • Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Turkey
  • Zimbabwe

Funded by an IMPACT grant, Cayon started working on this idea in the Spring 2013 semester. During that time, a survey went out to more than 100 students. The results of the survey read that bilingual classes would be supported. The feedback was mostly positive on the concept that somewhat surprisingly hasn’t been offered in universities like Purdue.

“I haven’t seen many bilingual courses being offered,” Cayon says. “So we’ll give it a try.”

Cayon foresees much interaction for the in-class section and an ample opportunity for international students away from West Lafayette for the online version, which will feature lectures and quizzes in both Spanish and English. The in-class model will have online lectures in Spanish.

“We want the students to have a real bilingual experience,” says Cayon of Elementary Statistical Methods, also known as STAT 301. “We will have a lot of activities and discussions. We’ll encourage a lot of group interaction.

“Of course, if there is a non-native Spanish speaker that needs explanation in English, I will accommodate them but they should get exposure to the technical side of the Spanish language, which is I think very unique because in regular language courses they will not get such exposure."

Cayon predicts students learning new vocabulary and using it in semester-end presentations.

Prof. Rebecca Doerge, department head of the Department of Statistics, leads a very international program. In fact, Purdue Statistics is one of the largest, most diverse statistics departments in the country. Branching out into bilingual delivery of statistics is a natural evolution as the department has a reputation for leading innovations in statistics. More bilingual courses could be on the horizon, especially with more than half of Statistics’ undergraduates in Fall 2013 claiming international status.

When asked whether Purdue Statistics has considered bilingual courses offered to Asian students, Doerge replies, “This is the question of the hour; everyone is asking. China, Korea, India, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines and many other Asian countries teach English in both primary and secondary schooling, so it may not be necessary for Purdue Statistics to provide bilingual courses for these students as extra support; they arrive to Purdue fluent in English. However, this is not to say that non-Asian undergraduates at Purdue cannot benefit greatly from learning to communicate in a second language that prepares them for an international career in an Asian country.  We started with Spanish because Dr. Laura Cayon expressed an interest in developing a bilingual version of Statistics 301, which is an introductory statistics course for most STEM areas. We were also motivated to provide this Spanish bilingual Statistics course because, to our knowledge there are no bilingual (Spanish/English) introductory statistics courses taught online by any of the big research universities in the United States. It is an opportunity for the Department of Statistics at Purdue University to provide further leadership in STEM education. For the course that we are discussing here, we are interested in recruiting and supporting minorities from underrepresented countries whose first language is Spanish, as well as support undergraduate training in a second language; it made sense for us to proceed with our vision.” 

Doerge agrees with the notion that any international experience can only benefit Purdue students:

“It probably isn’t essential for every student to have a bilingual class as a core learning experience, but it does make Purdue University undergraduates more competitive in the business, science and technology global markets if they are able to communication and deliver job skills, especially STEM disciplines, in a second language.”