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30 Years of Teaching Behind Her, Roxy Peck Says There Are No Mistakes

1 September 2017 No Comment
Jill Talley, ASA Public Relations Manager
    Roxy Peck is professor emerita of statistics at California Polytechnic State University, where she served as chair of the statistics department for six years and as associate dean of the college of science and mathematics for 13 years. A fellow of the American Statistical Association, she also is an elected member of the International Statistical Institute. She has received numerous awards throughout her career, including the ASA Founders Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Statistics from the US Conference on Teaching Statistics. She also has served as past chair of the Joint ASA/NCTM Committee on Curriculum in Probability and Statistics for Grades K–12 and the ASA Section on Statistical Education.

    There are no mistakes, only lessons.

    That commentary rings true with Roxy Peck, professor emerita of statistics at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), who credits her students with reminding her of the value in trying. “The most important thing I have learned from students is that it is okay to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.”

    Wanting to equip students with knowledge is a passion shared by teachers of any discipline. But, Peck, armed with 30 plus years of teaching experience, notes it’s when educators change things up that they can change a life. “Experimenting in class and trying different things is not only acceptable, it’s how we make improvements and become better teachers. I’ve found that students respect that if they know you really care and have their best interests at heart.”

    Even in her childhood, Peck was familiar with change. The daughter of a reporter who advanced up the corporate ladder to bigger newspapers in larger cities, she moved around often, living in the suburbs of Cleveland, Chicago, New York City, and finally Los Angeles, where she attended high school and has lived ever since. The first person in her family to graduate from college, Peck majored in social science. “It was the ’60s,” she chides, “and everyone I knew was majoring in political science or sociology or psychology. I obviously didn’t get very good advice when I was in high school!”

    It wasn’t until her senior year of college that she was introduced to statistics, and even then only as a requirement for graduation. “I really enjoyed it, and later took a second class that was offered by F.N. David called ‘Games, Gods, and Gambling’.” David was the chair of the statistics department at the University of California, Riverside, at the time, and Peck credits both the instructor and the course for shaping her career. “That was what made me decide that statistics and probability were really interesting and started me on the path to where I am today.”

    Two years after graduating, she decided to pursue additional education. Initially thinking she’d earn a second bachelor’s degree in statistics, she instead went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics and PhD in applied statistics over the next five years.

    Throughout her career, Peck established a nationally recognized presence as a leader in statistics education. Remembering what life was like as a student—the demands, adapting to different teaching styles, and workload—she’s been active in initiatives that aim to improve and expand statistics education for both students and teachers.

    Along with educators from across the country and officials at the U.S. Census Bureau, she helped launch Statistics in Schools in 2000, a nationwide program to introduce statistics activities and resources into K–12 classrooms. “If you use artificial and contrived examples, students don’t really get the sense that it [statistics] really is useful and used to answer important questions that could impact their lives,” she said in an interview last December with the San Luis Obispo News Times.

    “Statistics is still poorly taught in some places that still focus on the procedural aspect of the subject. But now there are many good textbooks and professors and high-school teachers who provide more of an emphasis on statistical thinking and conceptual understanding, and this is a really good thing.” In addition to authoring textbooks on introductory statistics, Peck is a co-editor of Statistical Case Studies: A Collaboration Between Academe and Industry and a member of the editorial board for Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown, 4th Edition.

    Serving as the chief reader for the Advanced Placement (AP) Statistics Exam from 1999–2003, she led efforts to make subject-matter decisions during the exam-construction process and guided hundreds of teachers through the grading procedure. And, when the College Board began redesigning the SAT in 2014—a move critics and even many academic test reviewers argue negatively affected English Language Learners (ELL) and other disadvantaged groups—Peck was outspoken about some of the changes. She noted that specific changes could lead to confusion, as some problems were either not mathematically sound, had incorrect answers, or were unrealistic.

    Though college entrance exams have changed formats over the years, higher education institutions continue to place value on them, a tactic in which Peck has seen both pros and cons. “If you had asked me several years ago if colleges would begin to place less weight on standardized test results, I would have said that we would see less emphasis on admissions tests because they didn’t always successfully measure the right things and were not always very good predictors of student success in college. But, I think the new revised SAT does a much better job of this, and so maybe it will be more useful in making admissions decisions at competitive institutions.”

    As time will tell how teaching techniques and exams evolve, so too will it generate a new crop of savvy students and thought-provoking teachers, who—focusing on statistics as a scientific discipline—can continue to expand awareness of the value of statistics education. Peck looks forward to this and believes “perhaps in another 10 years, we won’t hear students say statistics was their worst class in college.”

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