Statistics No Dry Subject
Under Woolley, Carnegie Professor of Year for Alabama
|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
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
Statistics Professor Tom Woolley
uses M&Ms to illustrate the importance of getting as wide
a sample as possible.
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."
Woolley "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 the statistics professor, in his
eighth year on the Samford 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 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
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 student 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," said Smith, 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.