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Nick Horton, An Advocate for Modernizing the Undergraduate Statistics Curriculum

1 September 2017 93 views No Comment
Jill Talley, ASA Public Relations Manager
    Nick Horton is a professor of statistics at Amherst College. He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Robert V. Hogg Award for Excellence in Teaching Introductory Statistics, William D. Warde Statistics Education Award, Waller Award for excellence and innovation in the instruction of elementary statistics at the undergraduate level, the ASA Founders Award, the Kathleen Compton Sherrerd and John J. F. Sherrerd Prize for distinguished teaching, and the Journal of Statistics Education award for best paper. A fellow of the ASA, he served as chair of the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies (COPSS) and has more than 150 publishing credits. He earned his AB from Harvard College in 1987 and ScD from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1999.

    If there were a poster child showcasing the diversity in statistical applications, it would be Nick Horton, professor of statistics at Amherst College. From computer science to communication to biostatistics to education, Horton pulls from a number of buckets as he teaches students to “think with data” from the beginning.

    Horton’s beginning was in Albany, New York, where he served as editor of his high-school newspaper. His interest in statistics blossomed during college as he majored in what seemed like an unrelated subject—psychology—and completed a number of computer science courses. “Tukey-inspired exploratory data analysis (EDA) was in the air, and I was hooked,” he remembers. Interestingly, his thesis involved the collection of pre- and post-data for first-year students completing a quantitative skills requirement.

    Following college, Horton struggled in the job market, just as many undergrads across the country are doing today. “I was blissfully under-employed for seven years, working as a computer facilities manager in Portland, Oregon.”

    While those computer science courses came in handy, Horton eventually pursued a graduate degree in biostatistics and focused on analyzing data from substance abuse and psychiatric epidemiology studies. So meaningful was that primary research area, he suspects his career would have moved in the direction of public health if he was not involved in teaching statistics.

    Horton—an advocate for modernizing the undergraduate statistics curriculum—served on a working group responsible for creating the Statistical Commons Website, a repository for sharing course materials such as lecture slides, exams, and data sets. He played a major role in updating the ASA’s Guidelines for Undergraduate Programs in Statistical Science in 2014, even co-authoring a guest editorial about undergraduate statistics curriculum in The American Statistician (volume 69, issue 4). In that, he challenged the statistical community to find ways to “ensure students have flexible problem-solving skills so they can tackle future problems using data with techniques and technology.”

    Beyond the college campus, Horton’s passion to teach statistics encompasses high-school students in both introductory and AP Statistics programs. His motivation helped lead to the formation of the ASA’s public education campaign, This Is Statistics, which shares educational and career resources in statistics with high-school and undergraduate students, teachers, school administrators, and parents.

    Former student Mariel Finucane, who was reluctant to enroll in a statistics class, credits Horton with showing her the positive that can come from the messiness of data and estimation. “In my junior year, I ran out of math classes to take, and although I considered myself a devout purist, I was left no better option than to enroll in his class. It turns out that I was in for a wonderful surprise. It was thanks to Nick that the light went on: Numbers hide within them fascinating information about health, politics, and science.”

    Conveying that excitement and generating a spark in students is no easy task, but Horton believes the power lies in a different teaching technique. “All too often, statistics has been taught as a cookbook with rote memorization of recipes. Best practices for teaching statistics now encourage us to teach ‘cooking skills’ as a creative and principled way to make sense of data.”

    Today, it’s not only his students who are learning. Horton appreciates the work of his longtime mentor, George Cobb, even now. “I continue to learn so much from him about how to be a better teacher, researcher, adviser, and person. He has a quote that is a favorite of mine: ‘Changing curriculum, like moving a graveyard, depends on local conditions.’ ”

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