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More Canterbury students took part in the biennial 2011 CensusAtSchool than in 2009, despite the earthquakes that led to the cancellation of the Government Census.

Teachers and students in years 5 to 13 at New Zealand schools still have until the end of the year to participate in the fifth of these national school surveys. Around 25,000 primary, intermediate and secondary students had completed it at the time of writing, answering a range of questions about themselves, which include body measurements, transport, school subjects, technology, favourite TV show, global issues and the Rugby World Cup.

Preliminary results show a slight increase in respondents whose favourite learning area is mathematics and statistics: from 7.76 percent in 2009 to 8.4 this year. The proportion of boys to girls whose favourite subject is maths has slightly increased since 2003 to almost double - 11.6 percent of boys compared to 6.1 percent of girls.

However, this difference is largely at primary school level. The parabolic curve in maths interest, with peaks at primary school and among 17-year-olds, has persisted in the 2011 respondents so far. Maths was a favourite of 19 percent of 8-year-olds, dropping to five percent of 14 and 15-yearolds, and rising to 10 percent of 17-year-olds. CensusAtSchool fits into the statistics curriculum and teaches the value of statistics in everyday life through information, by and for the students. With some surveys, students vote on which questions they’ve suggested should be included, says Co-Director Rachel Cunliffe.

There are many constraints on questions; the demographic data is the same as the official Census; some questions need to be common across most years, and a small number must be asked so CensusAtSchool data can be compared internationally. “We also want timely questions,” she says. “We try to have lots of different types of variables that are interesting to kids as well as being useful data, with nice relationships they can investigate.”

“They love it because it’s a different activity, and it’s interactive. They’re not just sitting at a computer - they’re measuring each other, asking each other’s opinions. They’re really interested in the answers to the questions, and how they compare with other students in their class and overseas.”

The measuring and collection of information for the survey can be done in a single lesson, and online responses can be in English and Maori. “Teachers get their class data back immediately, so they can start using it the next day if they want to.” The survey is accompanied by 42 class activities. “We provide the tools so that teachers and students can build their own tables and analyse data themselves,” says Cunliffe. The online random sampler enables data to be viewed as animated graphs, while the data viewer page enables students to explore data relationships and comparisons.

“We do some data cleaning, but we’re not rigorous,” she says. “For example, in finger lengths there’s a separate bell curve of students who entered their data in centimetres rather than millimetres, with tiny finger lengths, and the main bell curve, which has major spikes every five millimetres. Students were probably rounding it up to the nearest half centimetre, or they measured in centimetres, realised their mistake and just multiplied it up. That gives teachers a really good opportunity to discuss measurement problems and data cleaning.”

CensusAtSchool is funded jointly by the Ministry of Education, Statistics NZ and the University of Auckland, which provides staff time for technical support by Department of Statistics Multimedia Manager Stephen Cope, for data cleaning and analysis. Data from 2011 will be released next term, and new data added until the end of this year.

See also
Census at School: New Zealand website

Census at School: International website

NZ Stats website schools’ corner

Rachel Cunliffe, kneeling on left, with participating students from St Mary’s School in Northcote; CensusAtSchool supporter Shane Cortese is at the back. Photo: Godfrey Boehnke, University of Auckland.