I Took a Statistics Class at Harvard with No Background and I Learned a Lot.
I’ve written about my studio class multiple times up to this point, but there was another class that was really tough in terms of the workload. This class is called “Introduction to Probability”, a.k.a. STAT110. For undergraduate students at Harvard, there are several extremely popular classes: EC10 for understanding the basics of economics, CS50 for learning the fundamentals of programming, and the last one is this STAT110.
In STAT110, students study probability as a foundation of knowledge in statistics. Statistics is prevalent in many domains such as data science, machine learning, finance, and biology. Given the wide application of statistics, this class marks as the cornerstone for students wishing to enter these fields.
According to the professor, when he first got appointed at Harvard to teach statistics in 2006, there were only a few students a year who would major in statistics. Now, STAT110 has grown into a behemoth class with over 600 students enrolled. I was quite surprised that as an institution, Harvard successfully responds timely to education trends such as programming and statistics, and provides counterpart classes as CS50 and STAT110 and have numerous students go through them.
Why I Did I Take This Class?
As a master student in the Design Engineering program at Harvard, I’m required to take 4 classes every semester. 2 of them are core classes I’m required to take, and the rest of the 2 is up to my choice. Since this master program is 2 years, I only have 4 semesters to attend Harvard and I wanted to be as strategic as possible with regards to what electives to take. For me, the underlying theme I had upon selecting the elective classes was “creativity and data.” I was hoping to eventually take a class which I can study about machine learning. To achieve this, a knowledge of statistics from STAT110 is a must. I only took 2 quarters worth of classes in differential / integral calculus, and I was nervous if I had the foundation to jump into statistics, but I did it anyway.
The Hell Begins.
In the movie “21” there is a scene where Kevin Spacey, who appears as a MIT professor, questions his student with a typical Monty Hall problem.
When I first saw this scene, I was thrilled by it, but after taking STAT110, I realized that it’s a child’s play. In STAT110, I got exposed to from Bayes’ Theorem to Markov Chains. Also, I learned about various statistical paradoxes such as base rate fallacy and Simpson’s paradox. I don’t know how other students were feeling, but the weekly homework assignments were excruciating.
Together with my cohorts from the Design Engineering program, we took STAT110 together, and we would have a weekly study group to work on the homework problems. After coming home from school and doing housework and parenting, the only time I can resume my study was from midnight. I took a few hours of sleep once in a while, but I had to pull off so many all-nighters not just doing the assignments for STAT110, but also for other classes as well. Simply put, it was ruthless.
I Loved the Professor
Despite the horrible workload, I enjoyed the lecture a lot. The reason for that is because the professor teaching the class, Professor Joe Blitzstein, had a great lecture. After studying at Caltech and Stanford, Professor Blitzstein has been at Harvard for over 12 years now and has been the foundation of Havard’s statistics department. The concept of statistics can be daunting, especially for a novice learner, but his uplifting lecture makes that seem less relevant. On Halloween, he would pose himself as a Batman claiming that “Blitzstein is busy fighting the villain, so I came today as his substitute professor.” It was one of the most challenging class I have taken throughout my life, but the process was joyful thanks to the professor’s charming personality.
Another noteworthy aspect of this class was that the class provides abundant resources. There were over 30 teaching fellows who supported the class and they held studying sessions called “sections” and went over the materials covered in lectures through numerous practice problems.
What’s even more amazing is that all of the STAT110 lectures are available online for free, along with the textbook. People may ask “If it’s free, why do you even need to take this class at Harvard?” But for me, I needed this external pressure to keep me going on.
As a matter of fact, I never had a background in statistics, but I still managed to survive. It was tough, to be honest. But I did it. And I learned a lot. (I think.)
Using this foundation in statistics, I want to further build on top this knowledge and expand on what I can do combined with the power of design.