Yale SOM Students Teach Statistics Course in South Africa
For two weeks, 12 SOM students worked out of the University of Cape Town, instructing roughly 80 academics, government officials, and nonprofit leaders in the intricacies of data analysis. The group traveled to South Africa as the final step in a course called the African Data Analysis Project, which is taught by James Levinsohn, professor of economics. Throughout the fall semester, they had deepened their skills in statistical analysis, in order to take that knowledge and help others an ocean away. "This was a lot of work and a lot of responsibility," says Levinsohn. "The students went there to teach people some really sophisticated analytical techniques. The course ran from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. It was exhausting."
The course was the first taught by Levinsohn, who arrived at Yale last fall. In addition to teaching at Yale SOM, he is the director of the Jackson Institute, a new initiative at Yale aimed at deepening the university's engagement abroad. The institute reaches across the university, bringing together faculty and students in a conversation on pressing global issues with a rotating list of senior fellows such as retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, former CIA director James Woolsey, and Stephen Roach, former chief economist for Morgan Stanley and chairman of its Asian division. Senior fellows teach courses at Yale, which several SOM students have taken. "The mission of the Jackson Institute and SOM fit together perfectly," said Levinsohn. "It's not surprising. Yale University has very permeable borders. It's one of the strengths of this place."
While the African Data Analysis Project isn't a Jackson Institute offering, it shares those strengths. Levinsohn has worked in Africa for years and found that many leaders lacked sophisticated data analysis skills. He devised a course that would help increase the number of officials who understood statistics at a deep level, with business students acting as instructors. Each week during the semester, SOM students drilled down into a new module, learning not just how to interpret complex data sets but to begin to see how the lessons from them can be applied to real-world problems. Students worked from a survey of about 30,000 South African households that focused on everything from income to diet to child mortality. "We were building really deep skills week after week," says Ben Healey '11. "But since this is Yale, there was also the opportunity to use those skills to help people in another country. I had to decide between this course and one where you work with nonprofits in India. It's amazing how many chances there are to do work like this at SOM."
Once in Cape Town, the students worked a series of ten-hour days. Mornings were spent teaching the South African participants the basics of each lesson. For the afternoon, SOM students needed to come up with problem sets designed to put new knowledge to the test. Flavia Ravski '11 says that for her the need to teach statistics forced her to gain a much deeper understanding of the work than she might have if she just took a traditional course. "The knowledge we gained through the course is at a much higher level than you'd expect coming out of business school," she says. "I have no doubt that these skills will translate really well to the business world. And you really can't overstate the importance of being able to deal well with people across cultures. This course really forced us to become experts on both counts."
The African Data Analysis Project wasn't intended to be a site-seeing tour. There were no tour trips or cultural events, save for a barbecue with the entire group. The point was for students to spend nearly two weeks focusing almost exclusively on the work. But Healey says that despite this, he found that he came away with a much better understanding of South Africa than he expected. "Often when you go to a place you don't have enough time to dig deep into people's lives," he says. "You're just moving too fast. But I found out that working day after day with people from all over South Africa, I was really able to just sit and listen to what life is like for people in the country, both the challenges and promises. It made for a truly great Yale experience."