May 28, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 17

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    1998 QUANTRELL AWARD: Stephen Stigler

    Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor in Statistics

    By Catherine Behan
    News Office

    After teaching statistics for three decades, Stephen Stigler still sees it as a fresh subject each year. Computers, new methods and other advances have changed the understanding and teaching of statistics, he said, and students are a "constantly renewed resource."

    "We've changed a lot in how we teach and what we know about statistics over the years," said Stigler, the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor in Statistics, who received his first teaching award at the University of Wisconsin-Madison 27 years ago. "Each year brings a new group of students, and with it a new opportunity to tell about the fascinating subject of statistics -- along with the hope that I can make it as exciting as it was to me the first time I took a class in the subject."

    An expert on the history of statistics, Stigler is the author of numerous articles and books on the topic, including The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty Before 1900 (1986).

    Incorporating the history of statistics into his classes is one method Stigler uses to bring the subject to life. "Even in regular methods courses, I find that building in something of a historical perspective and bringing some of the problems that helped create the modern science of statistics can enliven the discussion," Stigler said.

    "For example, the methods of regression analysis were created at two separate times, one during the investigation of the shape of the earth and the motions of the comets, and the other during the investigation of inheritance and quantitative biology in the late 19th century. Both of these provide very useful, rich sources of examples that can help students understand the difficulties those researchers faced and therefore get a better grip on the subject themselves."

    A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Royal Statistical Society, Stigler taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before joining the Chicago faculty in 1979. He said that he and his fellow faculty members in Statistics benefit from being in a department that, since it was founded in the 1950s, has considered teaching to be an "extremely important part of why we are here."

    Teaching is a two-way street, he said. "I find that by explaining difficult concepts to students, I come to understand them better myself, and we all learn in the process."