Dr. Andy Litteral’s “Business Statistics and Economics I” course defies conventional norms for an entry-level statistics course. First- and second-year students enrolled in the course not only work textbook statistics problems, they also run statistical analyses for nonprofits and government agencies, thereby gaining the chance to work with real-world data with real-world implications.

Take, for example, two groups of students in Litteral’s spring 2010 course. 

One group—with members from Bolivia, China, and the states of New York and Washington—undertook a community-based learning project with the Office of the Executive Secretary (OES) of the Supreme Court of Virginia. The students culled through a large number of documents in an effort to predict what issues will have the greatest impact on the Virginia state court system in the next five to ten years.

They identified and wrote briefs on 12 pressing topics with legal implications—including mental health, illegal immigration, and information technology. Then they ranked each topic according to the effect they thought it would have on the court system in the future.

The students predicted that same-sex marriage and globalization would present the biggest challenges to the Virginia state court system in the next five to ten years, respectively.

“Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of our work for the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia was the feeling that we all had when we completed the project,” said group member Lawrence Richardson, ’13. “Knowing that we produced a report that will in some way help such a large and well-respected institution brings a sense of accomplishment with it.”

Kenneth Pankey, Jr., a senior planner with the Judicial Planning Department of the OES, oversaw the students’ project and validated Richardson’s sentiments. “The work by your students has provided beneficial leads that we intend to follow up,” he told Litteral.

Another group, with members from El Salvador, the Philippines, Michigan, and New York, analyzed unemployment trends for the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). Group members compared the economy of Virginia to the national economy.

They also researched job growth and loss in key employment sectors across the state and compared the employment-tax revenue coming into VEC coffers to the unemployment benefits flowing out of VEC coffers.

Conducting statistical analyses for the VEC seemed particularly relevant at a time when Virginia and the nation were emerging from a long, deep recession and unemployment remained high.

“We found [working with the UR students] to be rewarding not only from the standpoint of an excellent, creative final product, but also because we had the opportunity to expose some very bright and inquisitive young minds to the VEC and what we are all about,” said Harold Kretzer, Jr., VEC policy and planning specialist.

Experiences like these point to the tremendous value of community-based learning (CBL), Litteral said. “Students working in a real nonprofit or government organization have to deal with real issues and real problems. They learn about working with people and about group dynamics. They learn about professionalism when they prepare for and give their group presentations to the organizations. Ultimately they learn about much more than statistics.”

Litteral encouraged faculty and students interested in learning more about CBL to contact Terry Dolson, CBL program manager for the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). Litteral uses CCE resources to implement his CBL courses every year and credited a CCE-sponsored faculty workshop in summer 2008 with giving him the tools he needed to redesign his statistics course to include a CBL component.

Now he wouldn’t teach his statistics course any other way. “Where else but the University of Richmond could a group of freshmen and sophomores from the United States and abroad have the opportunity to work with organizations as prestigious as the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Virginia Employment Commission?” Litteral asked.