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Statistics No Dry Subject Under Woolley, Carnegie Professor of Year for Alabama

Posted on 2000-11-14 by William Nunnelley (205) 726-2800

Dr. Tom Woolley can make statistics come alive. Just ask Samford student Ginger McCarthy.

"I went into the course with nausea about Statistics and came out with a love for it," said the junior accounting major. "I didn't fall in love with the formulas--I fell in love with the application."

It's this practical approach to a subject many view as dry that excites students. Last spring, Woolley divided one class into teams that applied statistical analysis to a variety of real world projects.

One team used statistics to determine whether U.S. Steel's $10 million upgrade to a galvanization process was money well spent; another investigated ways the Alabama Press Association could help newspapers in transition to cutting-edge technology; a third uncovered the most common reasons why customers returned cellular phones.

Woolley takes "his exceptional knowledge of statistics and uses it to fashion undergraduate courses in business statistics that students enjoy," said Dr. Carl Bellas, Samford School of Business Dean. He "can present papers to management and biomedical researchers, yet bring statistics to the level that students can grasp and appreciate."

And he "consistently came to class with an excitement and enthusiasm that was absolutely contagious," said senior Marsha Smith last spring.

These are some of the reasons Woolley, in his eighth year on the Samford School of Business faculty, was named Alabama Professor of the Year for 2000 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Announcement of the award came Tuesday, Nov. 14, in Washington, D.C., from the Carnegie Foundation--the nation's third oldest foundation--and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which administers the program. Carnegie selects one winner for each state.

Woolley has definite opinions on what a teacher should be.

"Students assume their teacher is subject-matter competent," he said. "Beyond this, I believe that students expect caring and compassion, high energy and enthusiasm, high personal and student expectations, and a good sense of humor."

On the Samford business faculty since 1993, Woolley left a position as head of a biostatistics group at UAB "because he wanted to teach undergraduates," said Bellas, who praised Woolley's innovation, student-focused efforts and enthusiasm.

"Tom has also helped many of our faculty improve their courses," he said, "for example, by helping them develop Web pages to communicate with students."

Woolley regularly communicates with his students by E-mail and provides a full-blown Web site that contains all their notes and assignments. But the thing that impressed McCarthy was that his classes "made me love what I was learning because he showed me how it related to my life."

Woolley impressed Marsha Smith with his first-day admission that he failed statistics twice as an undergraduate. But he drew on the experience to figure out why the subject was so difficult to grasp, and that helped him develop a user-friendly approach to the subject.

Part of that approach includes using M&M candy to illustrate basic concepts. It starts with the first class, when he passes out bags of the popular sweet and asks students what percentage of the candy is green.

"Statistics is about decision-making," said Woolley, "being able to make decisions from limited information."

Even so, he stresses that getting as wide a sample as possible is important. The M&M green count helps make that point. The number in a single bag may vary widely, but the average number for a class is usually close to 10 percent, the right answer.

"I was dreading statistics," she said, but her experience in Woolley's class changed her mind. Now, she's a first-year student in the Ph.D program at the University of Alabama, majoring in management and minoring in statistics.

Woolley taught seven years at East Tennessee State University and five at UAB, where he won the 1992 UAB President's Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Florida State University.

Woolley says he is "honored and blessed to be a teacher," and that he hopes to keep growing in the profession. Next spring, he will be professor-in-residence at Samford's London Study Centre. As part of his preparation, he's developed a course entitled "Chance!" It relates statistical analysis to such fields as history (how the Great London Fire and other chance events altered history), literature (chance and the modern British novel), business (risk and its management), and others.

"I can only anticipate with joy the learning, discussions and debates that my students and I will experience next spring in London," he says.

No doubt his students will feel the same way.

 

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