INTERVIEW WITH E. JACQUELIN DIETZ

Sherry Wasserstein
Freelance Journalist

Newsletter for the Section on Statistical Education
Volume 5, Number 1 (Winter 1999)


The American Statistical Association is about to adopt a new project. But to the founding editor, it may seem as though the adoption is more akin to accepting the role of parenting a baby.

When E. Jacquelin Dietz became the founding editor of the Journal of Statistics Education (JSE) and saw that first publication birthed in July of 1993, she was already envisioning the idea of the ASA accepting the parenting role of the journal. The first electronic journal on post-secondary teaching of statistics broke ground with its introduction, and at its address of www.stat.ncsu.edu/info/jse/ it has just finished its Vol. 6, No. 3 edition. It has grown to such an international extent and was so widely successful, that it now has a mirror site at Universita' degli Studi in Perugia, Italy.

The journal was originally sponsored by the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University (home of Professor Dietz) and funded in part by grants from the Exxon Education Foundation and the Fund for the Improvement of Post-secondary Education (FIPSE) from the U.S. Department of Education. However, Dietz believed that the time had come to give JSE the prestige and stability that would come from sponsorship by a professional society like the ASA. And as has happened in many of her pursuits, the dream is about to become reality. In August the ASA Board of Directors agreed to take over the management of the journal, with the take-off date in January.

Encouraged to "dream big dreams" by colleagues at a workshop where there was cooperative brainstorming about the idea of an electronic journal, Dietz said they decided to "go ahead and take the lead here at NCSU." And that "big dream" has turned out to be a very successful dream fulfilled, after much hard work and perseverance, according to Dr. Daniel L. Solomon, professor at the NCSU's Department of Statistics. "Clearly, everybody would mention that her primary contribution would be the journal," he said. "It was an heroic effort and it continues to be an heroic effort. The idea was that it would be a perfect venture for ASA...so she just had to do it, prove its merit and then turn it over to ASA."

But according to Solomon, that project was typical for Dietz, whom he said had a "strong social conscience." He cited her contributions in teaching and research as examples of other areas where Dietz has excelled. He noted that among her strong points as a teacher was her ability to reach students who came to class with great fear...the graduate students in the social and behavioral science studies. "In the past, because they were afraid of things quantitative, older students came back to graduate work with great trepidation. They were hard to reach although they were more mature," Solomon said. "But she has had great success...so that the students got beyond math anxiety and went further to do their own research."

Noting her contributions in education ranged from primary schools to graduate studies, Solomon said she has developed as a teacher of teachers. "She designs and uses her statistics in support of education in a variety of ways," he said. One example, the "Expanding Your Horizons" program, involved teaching 500 seventh-grade girls about science and mathematics done by women. Other activities include being the organizer of the Department of Statistics Summer Camp Program for high school students, being a member of the Scientist-Teacher Partnership (a volunteer program of NCSU and the Wake County Public School System), Chair of the Section on Statistical Education of the American Statistics Association in 1997, a presenter at STATS (Statistical Thinking and Active Teaching Strategies) workshops for mathematicians who teach statistics, and Chair of the Department of Statistics Seminar Series at NCSU.

And because of her success in these areas, Dietz has been elected to NCSU's Academy of Outstanding Teachers (1985); received the D.D. Mason Faculty Award in recognition of teaching skills, innovation in statistics education and dedication to graduate students from other disciplines (1991); appointed Alumni Distinguished Professor for Undergraduate Teaching (1993-1995) and was a College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (PAMS) nominee for the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching (1997, 1998). Dietz was made a Fellow of the American Statistical Association in 1996.

But for Dietz, the real rewards have come from the students themselves. "Teaching is what excites me the most," she said. "Most of my recent teaching has been two-semester courses for social science graduate students who have jobs and families and are fearful about taking statistics. I like to alleviate their anxiety and convince them that they can do it and even enjoy it. I enjoy interacting with those students."

Dietz added that she enjoyed the rapport she had with the graduate students, noting that she would rather see them relaxed and talking than herself just lecturing for an hour. "I think I've had some success. They don't leave my class loving it, but I think they leave with more confidence," she said.

She added that she perceived part of her job in class as making the content seem relevant--something they will need to use. "I try to find examples of interest to them. I think the courses we teach now are more interesting and relevant than they were 15 years ago," she said, and added that it helped that there was less drudgery today in dealing with data computations so that students could talk about the interpretations instead of the mechanics.

"It is so much easier to graph data," she added. "What we used to have to go through was unbelievable. It has made a huge change that we now have friendly computer packages. Teaching is more exciting and challenging now as we move away from hand computations toward using technology and computers and real data sets. There is more use of activities and projects in our courses, and students are more actively involved in their own learning."

But Dietz is not content to leave it at that. She is eager to see the field of statistics gain more visibility and recognition. "Statisticians help solve problems in every academic field, and nearly all students can benefit from taking a statistics course. The Advanced Placement statistics course will help us recruit students, because more students will come to college already aware of the field of statistics. We need to sell our discipline and convince others of its importance," she said.

Dietz, who started her own education with degrees in mathematics and psychobiology at Oberlin College, then did graduate work in biobehavioral sciences at the University of Connecticut and earned her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in statistics from the University of Connecticut, said she always wanted to do work that was relevant and helped the world solve real problems. With her research, innovative editing, and teaching skills, she has done just that.

"I enjoy what I do," she said. "I can't imagine any other job I'd like better."


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