Statistics: Then & Now
A LOOK BACKWARD
In 1942, Jane Greer Puckett sat in an introductory statistics course and took copious notes. She worked the problems behind simple linear regression by hand, utilizing calculus equations and other mathematical skills.
Puckett became the first undergraduate student to complete the business statistics program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1943. From there, she put her skills to work at Y-12 in Oak Ridge as a mathematician-statistician during the Manhattan Project. Puckett is one of nine women featured in Denise Kiernan’s book The Girls of Atomic City, a 2017 national bestseller.
More than 75 years after Puckett’s graduation, distinguished lecturer Charlie Cwiek found Puckett’s class notes inside an old file cabinet in his office at Stokely Management Center. One set of notes documents an introductory statistics course from June 1942. “They read a lot like what we’d say today as far as defining the study of statistics,” Cwiek says. “Many of the basics have remained constant.”
There are some striking contrasts. In the 1940s, students in business statistics were required to have a working knowledge of higher math, particularly calculus. “Back then, they were still in the period of developing statistical techniques,” says Cwiek. “Someone seeking a degree would probably be expected to make a contribution to that development, which requires a knowledge of calculus.” Today, the focus has shifted toward learning and implementing existing statistical techniques, and the curriculum has expanded to include necessary digital skills such as coding.
Because analytics professionals work with large volumes of digital data, part of their job is to find the information they need to solve problems. “Businesses are drowning in data but starved for information,” Cwiek explains. “The challenge is figuring out how to get useful information from large amounts of data.” Data mining has become its own sub-discipline and plays a prominent role in today’s statistics landscape.
Even in Puckett’s day, business professors recognized the coming changes with the advent of the digital age. “With her notes, I found a homemade facsimile of an IBM punch card Puckett made from an index card,” says Cwiek. “Although they didn’t have computers at the university at that time, professors knew what was coming and prepared their students to succeed in the future.”
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Students in Haslam’s business analytics program today have the option to take some courses online. Brian Stevens, senior lecturer in business analytics, started teaching a hybrid version of Statistics 201 six years ago using a videoconferencing platform. Students had the option to attend class in person or follow along from their personal devices. Stevens got positive responses from many students, and he started to explore the new possibilities technology offered.
He connected with senior IT technologist Dwight Campbell and with Mark Collins and Jason Greenway at Haslam’s technology-enhanced education office and was impressed with the fresh vision of possibility they painted. Stevens started to make higher quality, standalone videos that students could watch on their own time.
He uploaded the videos to YouTube, and in the process realized he could start broadcasting a class on the platform instead of using Zoom. Since students were already familiar with YouTube, the platform allowed him to meet them on familiar ground. His class immediately engaged with the interactive features.
A professed child of technology, Stevens brings that savvy to his teaching style. “I run my class like it’s a show,” he says. “I want the students to have fun, make jokes, and enjoy themselves, because I know I have to keep their eyes on the screen.”
There’s a lot to keep track of for Stevens as he teaches a class, but he thrives on the challenge of keeping up with the live chat stream while carrying out his lesson plans for the day. Some sessions function like a live online lab, where Stevens will work a problem with students when they ask for help. They also can ask him to do a “speed run” to review a topic. “I have to explain it as quickly as possible, so I go straight through without stopping,” he says. “Unique things like that catch their attention and keep the pace moving forward.”
Student feedback is overwhelmingly positive. They enjoy the class atmosphere and, most importantly, stay engaged to learn what they need to know. “The amount of energy that he puts into his YouTube channel is incredible,” Andrew Wind, a junior in business analytics who took Stevens’ online course in the fall, says. “It kept me entertained and focused, and was honestly one of the best online class experiences I’ve had.”
Amber Heatherly, a junior in business analytics, appreciates Stevens’ willingness to answer questions and engage with students. “He always makes time to help us, whether in person or online,” she says. “That really stands out. If I have a question, I don’t hesitate to ask.”
In addition to interactive YouTube class meetings, Stevens draws problems from an online curriculum and utilizes a browser lockdown tool to administer exams. Even though the class is immersed in technological innovations, it still retains elements of the past: he uses a real whiteboard in his office to work problems as he broadcasts live classes.
“Education really hasn’t changed,” Stevens says. “It’s still very much about building connections with students, but today we’re asking new questions: ‘How do we deliver a class over the internet? Will students get the same experience? Are we meeting the metrics we had before shifting to online learning?’ I’ve always been under the impression that online learning can be better than classroom learning if we really invest in it—and I’m glad we’re doing that here at Haslam.”