Team of PIs (for NSF grants listed below)

Dennis K. Pearl (; is Professor of Statistics at Pennsylvania State University, having recently moved there from Ohio State. Since founding CAUSE in 2005, Dennis has served as its director. He has authored many national grants and papers in both statistics and statistics education.

Lawrence M. Lesser (;, is Professor of Mathematical Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso, where he also has directed the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. His statistics education research has led to several awards, service on editorial boards, and textbook co-authorship. At UTEP, he works with UTEP Music Dept. faculty Dominic Dousa and Steve Haddad on the NSF SMILES grant and worked with Rey Reyes from UTEP College of Education on the NSF UPLIFT grant.

John J. Weber III (; is a tenured Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Perimeter College at Georgia State University (called Georgia Perimeter College up until Jan. 6, 2016) where he has been teaching advanced mathematics since 2009 and won Perimeter College's Excellence in Teaching Award in 2016. He also received the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) Excellence Award for Teaching Excellence in 2017. His current research interests include the effect of using fun on student learning and anxiety in the statistics classroom, the effective use of technology in post-secondary mathematics, and how to engage students through inquiry-based learning.


Collaborative proposal: SMILES: Student-Made Interactive Learning with Educational Songs for Introductory Statistics

NSF Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) EAGER (Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) grant
(15 September 2015 to 31 August 2017)
PSU (1544426); UTEP (1544237); GPC (1544243)

Abstract: In our increasingly data-centric world, statistical reasoning (reasoning about data in the context of uncertainty) has become central to the skills our nation needs students to develop. Unfortunately, students’ first experience with statistical reasoning remains in classrooms dominated by lectures rather than active learning experiences and dominated by instructors relatively untrained in the field. This is especially true at two-year colleges where adjunct instructors often find it difficult to take part in professional development opportunities, often perceive reform-based pedagogies as taking “extra work” when they already have an unreasonable workload, perceive new resources as being difficult to integrate into their current mode of instruction, and recognize the often severe “statistics anxiety” in their students. SMILES (Student Made Interactive Learning with Educational Songs) for Introductory Statistics will develop and field-test an innovation in online learning where students create a song by filling in key words associated with a learning objective. These interactive songs will challenge students to make conceptual connections and construct examples or context, thereby fostering statistical literacy and reasoning skills. By reducing statistics anxiety (a key impediment to student success) and enhancing student learning, the potential impact is striking.

Interactive songs are a novel learning resource that holds great potential for teaching literacy and reasoning skills in statistics and other STEM disciplines. The web-based, machine-run, and auto-graded characteristic of this resource will provide easy access to students anywhere anytime, and will address instructor hesitations regarding in-class use. For instructors, interactive songs will be readily adoptable regardless of pedagogy (e.g., as easily incorporated in a flipped class as in an online class, or a lecture/lab course), and provide a simple bridge to the statistics education reform movement for groups like two-year college adjuncts who remain otherwise disconnected. Most importantly, for students, these professional-quality interactive songs will be designed to engage, lessen anxiety, and foster active learning that enhances statistical reasoning skills. To enhance their value, the interactive songs developed by the SMILES project will involve a unique artist/scientist collaborative to create original high-quality musical resources. To evaluate their efficacy, we will conduct a randomized controlled field test involving twenty college level introductory statistics instructors (15 will be from two-year colleges and most with predominately African American and Hispanic student populations) in order to assess the value of interactive songs in enhancing student learning and reducing student anxiety.

Collaborative Research Project UPLIFT: Universal Portability of Learning Increased by Fun Teaching

NSF Div. of Undergraduate Education (DUE) TUES (Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science) Type 1 grant
(15 August 2012 to 15 August 2016)
OSU (1141261); PSU(1519554); UTEP (1140690); GPC (1140592)

Abstract: Project UPLIFT: Universal Portability of Learning Increased by Fun Teaching will offer college statistics teachers engaging classroom mini-lessons and resources consisting of “fun” items, spanning all main topics of introductory statistics, from the extensive, widely-visited digital library. The fun items encompass many modalities, including cartoons, jokes, quotes, songs, poems, wordplay, and videos. UPLIFT will transform the undergraduate statistics classroom by putting fun items into well-indexed and annotated “classroom-ready” form with mini lesson plans for their use without requiring “special talent” - thus removing perceived barriers to use. UPLIFT materials will be assessed rigorously for their impact on student learning and student anxiety and attitudes towards the often-dreaded realm of introductory statistics. This will be done using a novel randomized controlled experiment and supporting interviews and observations of students. UPLIFT will disseminate methods and results through virtual and paper publications, conference presentations, and both general and customized webinars. UPLIFT’s impact will be broad – the fun-based items are being tailored for, and tested in, diverse populations of students representative of the 800,000 students taking introductory statistics each year in the United States. Project UPLIFT collaborating institutions are Ohio State University, University of Texas at El Paso, and Georgia Perimeter College.

Project UPLIFT Outcomes Report:

Project UPLIFT: Universal Portability of Learning Increased by Fun Teaching aimed to enhance and field test the use of fun items, such as songs and cartoons, for learning introductory statistics. Project UPLIFT enhanced the collection of fun items at to make them easier and more pedagogically valuable for instructors’ use with searching, browsing, and annotated links to statistical concepts and references in the literature. The collection currently has 538 items including 97 songs, 132 cartoons, 33 poems, 38 jokes, 191 quotes, 17 videos, 23 artistic sketches, 3 puzzles, and 4 magic tricks. This resource is heavily used by college-level statistics teachers nationally (including those who teach AP Statistics in high school). Further, as part of the UPLIFT project, the Commercial Music Program at The University of Texas at El Paso produced high quality recordings of a preponderance of our educational songs so they could be used without requiring teacher talent. In our field test, we hoped to show that such materials could enhance student learning and reduce student anxiety. Thus, we conducted a randomized experiment to understand the value of fun inserts in about 15 brief content readings that were developed to be aligned with course curriculum. Our results showed only a small positive effect, on average, for reducing student anxiety that was not statistically significant. However, we did find a statistically significant increase in learning, as students who were randomly assigned to hear songs about statistical concepts averaged 7.7% higher on embedded multiple-choice items in course exams. Finally, by conducting interviews and focus groups with students, we also gained a good deal of contextual information about student perceptions of the use of fun items in teaching and learning. In particular, our findings revealed that students valued, engaged in more, and felt they understood the material better when an instructor enacted a fun-enhanced pedagogy that built on the emotional aspects of teaching and learning. To maximize impact and dissemination, project resources are freely online for statistics teachers. Project leaders also produced peer-reviewed papers and talks, conducted workshops, and archived a variety of online presentations and activities.


(including one or more of the authors on fun in statistics education, whether or not it was part of the grants)

Lesser, L., Pearl, D.K., & Weber, J. (April 2017). Changing the rhythm of math class: Using educational songs to cultivate learning and community, 60-minute session, NCTM Annual Meeting & Exposition, San Antonio, TX.

Weber, J., Pearl, D.K., & Lesser, L. (Jan. 2017). Using interactive songs to engage students in learning introductory statistics: Overview of NSF-funded project, contributed paper at MAA Session on Humor and Mathematics (organizers: Debra Korkovitz, Gizem Karaali, Semra Kilic-Bahi, Cesar Martinez-Garza). Joint Mathematics Meetings, Atlanta, GA.

Weber, J., Pearl, D.K., & Lesser, L. (Jan. 2017). Project SMILES: Student-Made Interactive Learning with Educational Songs, poster at MAA and NSF joint poster session for holders of NSF DUE awards in the mathematical sciences (organizer: Jon Scott). Joint Mathematics Meetings, Atlanta, GA.

Weber, J.J., Lesser, L., & Pearl, D.K. (Nov. 2016). Project SMILES: Student-made interactive learning with educational songs in statistics, poster, American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges. Denver, CO.

Lesser, L. M., Reyes, R., Pearl, D., & Weber, J. (Nov. 2016). Fun Fosters Educational Community Culture. Research session for Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education Conference, Louisville, KY.

Weber, J. (Oct. 2016). Engaging Students through Interactive Songs. Two-Year College Association of Georgia Conference. Clarkston, GA.

Lesser, L.M., Pearl, D.K., & Weber, J.J. (July 2016). Assessing fun items’ effectiveness in increasing learning of college introductory statistics students: Results of a randomized experiment. Journal of Statistics Education, 24(2), 54-62.

Lesser, L., An, S., & Tillman, D. A. (June 2016). The use of song to open an educational development workshop: Exploratory analysis and reflection. To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, 35(2), 284-302.

Oh, Hyen, Pearl, D., Lesser, L. & Weber, J. (May 2016). Gender differences in statistical anxiety. Archived poster presentation, 3rd Electronic Conference on Teaching Statistics.

Lesser, L., Dousa, D., Haddad, S., Pearl, D., & Weber, J. (March 2016). Interactive songs to engage students learning introductory statistics: Overview of NSF-funded project. Podium talk at 13th International Sun Conference on Teaching and Learning. El Paso, TX.

Crowther, G. (2016, February 18). STEM songster interview #19: Professor [Larry] Lesser.

Lesser, L.M., Weber, J.J., & Pearl, D. K. (2016). Using targeted fun in college introductory statistics to decrease anxiety and increase learning: Research, resources, and recommendations [contributed paper at 2016 Joint Mathematics Meetings]. In Carla D. Savage (Ed.), Abstracts of papers presented to the American Mathematical Society, vol. 37, no.1, issue 183, p. 389.

Lesser, L. (2015, Nov. 19). The Gambler. Invited performance at National Museum of Mathematics.

Lesser, L.M. & Reyes, R. (2015, June). Student Reactions to the Integration of Fun Material in a High-Anxiety Subject: A Case Study in the Teaching of College Introductory Statistics. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal, 8(1), 1-19.

Weber, J.J., Pearl, D.K., & Lesser, L. (May 2015). Fun in statistics class: A vehicle for students to make connections. Competitively-selected breakout session presented twice at 2015 United States Conference on Teaching Statistics,

Lesser, L. M. & Weber, J. (2015). Research, resources, and recommendations for using humor/fun in college mathematics and statistics courses: Lessons learned from survey research and NSF-funded randomized experiments and a case study [contributed paper at 2015 Joint Mathematics Meetings]. In Abstracts of papers presented to the American Mathematical Society.

Lesser, L. (2014, November). Research, Rationale, and resources for leveraging fun into learning. Research session for Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education Conference, Dallas, TX.

Lesser, L. (2014, Nov. 21). Using ‘Fun’ in the Statistics Classroom: Research and Recommendations. Invited Research Burst talk, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics regional conference, Houston, TX.

Lesser, L. (2014). Mathematical lyrics: Noteworthy endeavours in education. Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, 8(1-2), 46-53. (with author preprint version at

Lesser, L., Reyes, R., Pearl, D., & Weber, J. (July 2014). Preliminary results of the effects and roles of fun in introductory statistics classes [Poster abstract]. In K. Makar, B. de Sousa, & R. Gould (Eds.), Sustainability in statistics education. Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Teaching Statistics (ICOTS9, July, 2014), Flagstaff, AZ, USA. Voorburg The Netherlands: International Statistical Institute.

Lesser, L. (June 2014). Overcoming statistical anxiety and being successful in data analysis. In Amanda J. Rockinson-Szapkiw & Lucinda S. Spaulding (Eds.), Navigating the doctoral journey: A handbook of strategies for success (pp. 65-75). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Keith Pannell's interview of Larry Lesser aired on KTEP-FM on 5/29/2014 in the series "100@100: Research for Our Next Century"

Lesser, L., Pattanayak, C. W., & Pruim, R. (2014, May 25). Panel on ‘Bridging the Disciplines’ for second Electronic Conference on Teaching Statistics (eCOTS),

Lesser, L., Pearl, D., Reyes, R., & Weber, J. (2014, May 20). Bridging the disciplines with fun: Resources and research. Competitively-selected breakout session for second Electronic Conference on Teaching Statistics (eCOTS),

L. Lesser, R. Carver, & P. Erickson (2013, Aug. 20). Using fun in the statistics classroom: An exploratory study of college instructors’ hesitations and motivations. Invited Journal of Statistics Education webinar for Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education, archived at

Lesser, L. (2013). Exploring (and removing) hesitations to using (thoughtful) fun in statistics classes. Proceedings of the 2013 Joint Statistical Meetings, Section on Statistical Education (pp. 534-536). Alexandria, VA: American Statistical Association.

Lesser, L. (2013). Plenary featured banquet edutainment. United States Conference on Teaching Statistics.

Lesser, L.M.; Wall, A.; Carver, R.; Pearl, D.K.; Martin, N.; Kuiper, S.; Posner, M. A.; Erickson, P.; Liao, S.-M.; Albert, J.; & Weber, J.J.(2013). Using fun in the statistics classroom: An exploratory study of college instructors’ hesitations and motivations. Journal of Statistics Education, 21(1), 1-33.

Lesser, L. M. & Glickman, Mark E. (2009). Using magic in the teaching of probability and statistics. Model Assisted Statistics and Applications, 4(4), 265-274.

Lesser, L. & Pearl, D. (2008). Functional fun in statistics teaching: Resources, research, and recommendations. Journal of Statistics Education, 16(3), 1-11. Its table of 20 fun modalities:

Lesser, L. (2008). Even More Fun Learning Stats. STATS, 49, pp. 5-8, 19, 27. [issue is at].

Lesser, L. (2007). Learning Stats is FUN…with the Right Mode. STATS, 48, pp. 7-11, 21, 26-28. [issue is at].

Lesser, L. (2006, April 11). Making statistics learning fun. CAUSE webinar archived at:

Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education (2004, August). CAUSE website launched that includes some fun items. (the fun item contest launched 2 years later).

Lesser, L. (2003). Further comments and cautions on using humor [comment on Friedman, Friedman, & Amoo, 2002]. Journal of Statistics Education, 11(1).

Lesser, L. (2002). Stat Song Sing-Along! STATS, 33, pp. 16-17.

Lesser, L. (2001). Musical means: Using songs in teaching statistics. Teaching Statistics, 23(3), 81-85.