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Introducing Barnard’s Empirical Reasoning Lab

Last semester, Barnard introduced a new resource on campus: the Empirical Reasoning Lab (ERL), where students can seek guidance for using statistical-analysis software, exploring digital troves of data, and approaching research questions with an eye toward evidence and intuition. Funded by the Mellon Foundation and located on the second floor of Lehman Library, the ERL provides a team of librarians, graduate and undergraduate student fellows, and affiliated faculty dedicated to helping Barnard students think about research questions and navigate data sources in new ways.

“Empirical reasoning is the process of thinking critically about interesting information, and asking the right questions to understand and draw conclusions,” said Heather Van Volkinburg, Barnard’s data librarian and manager of the Empirical Reasoning Lab, who joined the library staff last summer after completing her PhD in psychology at Columbia. “Through training sessions, online tutorials, and consultations, we’re here to help students use and understand quantitative and qualitative data in research and in the classroom.”

A major part of Van Volkinburg’s role is collaborating with faculty to integrate empirical reasoning and data analysis into their course syllabi. Last semester, she worked with professors Gergeley Baics and Meredith Linn to develop a new project for their urban studies junior colloquium, The Shaping of the Modern City, which looks at urban growth from the mid-19th century to the present.

“We had our students analyze crude mortality rates from five different American cities from the early-19th to early-20th centuries,” said Prof. Linn, explaining that students were required to use Excel to create graphs in order to recognize trends, and then provide historical explanations for their observations. “The vast majority of students did not previously know how to create and manipulate graphs in Excel, so the ERL provided a hands-on workshop using another data set. Our students came away with valuable and transferable skills for tackling the class assignment.”

Beyond teaching these technical skills, the ERL workshop and subsequent class assignment also helped students think more broadly and discuss the data as evidence in a particular context. “The issue wasn’t about being right or wrong—it was making sure they were approaching it with the right intuition,” said Prof. Baics, noting that he and Linn plan to make similar assignments with the ERL a regular part of the junior colloquium. In future semesters, Van Volkinburg plans to list courses with empirical reasoning components on the ERL website, in order to help students seek out classes that will work directly with the lab.

“In a world that is simply inundated with information, it is important that we prepare our students to be good citizens and skilled employees,” said David Weiman, Alena Wels Hirschorn '58 Professor of Economics and dean for faculty diversity and development, who has been a longtime proponent of incorporating what he calls empirical literacy into Barnard’s curricula. “In today’s environment, this means helping students become acute consumers and producers of empirical research—they need to be able to decipher data in a lot of different forms, and they need to be able to evaluate arguments with evidence.”

“Students often shy away from using data to answer questions, yet when they graduate, they're being asked to solve problems that require data analysis,” said Lisa Norberg, dean of library and academic information services. “Knowing how to find, access, and manipulate data—these are critically important skills.”

Right now, the ERL is focused on the social sciences, but the longer term plan is expanding into many more areas of the curriculum. Norberg describes the possibilities: mining the corpus of an author’s digitized works to study how a particular phrase was used, or applying geographic information systems (GIS) technology to data from an archaeological dig to understand the spatial relationships that defined an ancient culture. “These are exciting examples of what’s possible and the expanding role that libraries can play in teaching and research enterprises,” she said.

In addition to Van Volkinburg, the ERL staff consists of three graduate-student fellows from Columbia, along with one Barnard student fellow, Emily Arsen ’13, a sociology major, who works one-on-one with students during the lab’s drop-in office hours, and also helps conduct workshops tailored for specific course assignments.

Arsen will be teaching math in Detroit with Teach for America next year. Working in the ERL is a way of enhancing her own knowledge about different statistical programs, and an opportunity to develop her skills as a teacher. “Students come in realizing they’ve crafted questions that require mathematical analysis, and in working with them, I am figuring out how to frame things in ways that make sense and help other people understand,” said Arsen, who is using quantitative analysis in her senior thesis on immigration health.

“There is definitely an emphasis on students helping students,” said Van Volkinburg, who sees this peer support as an exciting element of the ERL’s role on campus. She is looking forward to meeting and working with more students and faculty from across disciplines this semester.

The ERL invites students to stop by during walk-in hours. The lab is located in 200 Lehman, at the south end of the floor – turn right when entering from the stairs/elevator. Students unable to attend during the scheduled times, please email the ERL staff to set up an appointment.