George Cobb

Citation for 2003 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

Whether catapulting gummy bears to demonstrate to his students the fundamentals of experimental design or chairing national committees on undergraduate education in his field, George Cobb is always focused on finding new and better ways to teach statistics. Beginning in the 1980's he was in the vanguard of those who radically altered courses in introductory statistics as computers liberated them to set their students to work with real data. In recent years George has turned to the content and pedagogy of more advanced classes. He has successfully sought ways to engage students from widely diverse academic backgrounds in courses that simultaneously explore mathematics and statistics.

The fruits of his latest work are newly designed courses in Markov Chain Monte Carlo, linear statistical methods, and mathematical statistics. Expanded versions of George's handouts and problem sets for each of these are destined for textbooks. That on Markov Chain Monte Carlo, supported by an NSF grant, is already in draft form. These upcoming books will join his other published texts which include: Introduction to Design and Analysis of Experiments, 1998, and Statistics in Action: Practical Principles for a World of Uncertainty, written with Richard L. Scheaffer and Ann E. Watkins and just published.

George's students applaud his teaching and his innovative courses. One commented, "I not only learned a great deal about statistics this semester, but also gained invaluable insight into important components of effective teaching." Another praised his "great knack for assessing our abilities and tailoring . . . weekly assignments so as not to overwhelm us." They recognized that in giving out large numbers of homework problems he made it possible for each to find something to work on productively.

Students find "his class environment is truly focused on learning." They regularly report working very hard, but find themselves highly motivated to do so and "pushed to their maximum potential without extreme pressure." And they enjoy it. One concluded: "I worked super hard, but it was all real brain power, and not tedious busy-work."

George's constantly probing explorations of what should be the content and pedagogy of statistics courses not only have brought him student acclaim at Mount Holyoke, but also national and international prominence. He has written and spoken widely to varied audiences of statisticians, mathematicians, and educators, and has led major initiatives in statistical education. He was chair in 1990-91 of the focus group on statistics of the Mathematical Association of America and from 1990 to 1999 of the Joint Committee on Undergraduate Statistics of the Mathematical Association of America and the American Statistical Association. He served on the committee that founded the Journal of Statistical Education in 1993 and then was its associate editor for five years. Most recently he served on the Committee on Applied and Theoretical Statistics of the National Academy of Science. Among George's special honors was an invitation to give an after dinner address at the Quadrennial International Conference on Teaching Statistics held last summer in Cape Town, South Africa. In 1993, he became a fellow of the American Statistical Association.

George has lead many pedagogical conversations among his colleagues in mathematics and statistics, and also has done important work with the faculty at Mount Holyoke. Under an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant, he was a co-organizer of three semester-long faculty seminars in 1983 and 1984. From these emerged the Quantitative Reasoning course, which, almost twenty years later, continues as an important and evolving interdisciplinary course.

George Cobb is a teacher of teachers and highly honored for that. Today, however, the last words should come from his students at Mount Holyoke. Two final comments: "George is a wonderful teacher. Not only is he super smart, he really makes an effort to teach well." "Mr. Cobb . . . knows his subject and is always prepared and doing extra work for us, but any teacher can do that. Mr. Cobb is awesome because he really cares about his students and can sense when they are not getting a subject, and he is more open to different learning styles than any teacher I know. He encourages his students to do well and to achieve great things beyond the course."