Simmons College: Teaching Statistics with Minitab for Nearly 40 Years

Dr. Robert Goldman has been a statistics professor at Simmons College in Boston, Mass., for 43 years. And for almost all that time, he has been teaching statistics with Minitab Statistical Software.

Simmons College Building 

One of the first schools to integrate Minitab into its statistics curriculum in the late 1970s, Simmons College has a reputation for being on the forefront of statistics education. For example, the college recently introduced the biostatistics major, which teaches students to apply statistical methods to improve public health and reduce illness.

“We’ve graduated about 20 biostatisticians in the last three or four years and nearly all of them have gone on to graduate school and then gotten jobs,” Goldman notes. “Many have gone into the medical field and have been able to get fulltime jobs as a result of internships they’ve gotten through Simmons.”

Goldman has had a critical influence on Simmons’ forward-thinking approach to teaching statistics. After earning his Ph.D. in statistics from Harvard, Goldman was the first statistician employed by Simmons. “From the beginning, I loved and still love to teach,” Goldman says. “But I felt from my experience at Harvard that we really needed technical support in the form of good software.”

When he began teaching, Goldman explains, Minitab clearly stood out among the limited statistical software options available. “It seemed much more manageable to students than other software that was available, and it also helped that Ryan and Joiner had a very good handbook on how to use Minitab,” he notes. “When we tried it, we found Minitab was accessible and well supported, and we’ve been using it ever since.”

Published in 1976, The Minitab Handbook Goldman refers to detailed how Minitab could be used in the classroom. Written by Brian Joiner and Barbara Ryan—two of the three Penn State statisticians who built the first version of Minitab in 1972—the handbook allowed students to minimize doing complex statistical computations by hand so they could focus instead on the practical value of statistics, and what their analyses meant.

“Minitab has helped to make statistics more meaningful,” says Goldman. “It’s a joy to use, and I think students are surprised at how easy it is to get started and do quite sophisticated analyses early on in an introductory course.”

Minitab Statistical Software is prevalent on the Simmons campus, and is used frequently in statistics classrooms there. “Minitab is available in the dorms, in all of the libraries, and we have a large number of computer classrooms that have Minitab,” Goldman says. “As we’re illustrating a topic, we will have the students pull up data and do the analysis in Minitab, so we use it actively in the classroom; we have integrated it fully into our teaching at the introductory level.”

Goldman and his colleagues also rely on the Help resources within the software, including the StatGuideTM, which helps students interpret the results of their analyses, and hundreds of sample datasets accessible directly from Minitab to demonstrate and explain important statistical tools. Goldman, with Dr. John McKenzie from nearby Babson College, authored two editions of The Student Guide to Minitab, which he also uses in his classroom to assist teaching his students statistics.

Simmons College was established in 1899 and is a small women’s liberal arts college at the undergraduate level, but offers co-education at the graduate level.

“Simmons was founded to provide occupations for women in days when they didn’t have very many choices,” Goldman says. “We’ve always prided ourselves on combining practical and academic courses for our students. Statistics is perfect for that because there’s a nice theory behind it, but it’s also hugely practical and it gets people jobs—and that’s very, very important.”

Goldman says the growth of statistics at the college over the past several years has largely reflected the blossoming of the subject both within and beyond academe.

“Data has become more widely available and more necessary,” Goldman says. “It’s more important than ever these days to understand statistical ideas in healthcare and evidence-based medicine. Data is everywhere, much more so than it was just 20 years ago.

“Careers that involve statistical analysis are well paid and the demand far exceeds the supply,” continues Goldman. “We live in a quantitative world, and people comfortable dealing with data are the ones who are going to get the jobs. I think students are beginning to see that.”

Goldman himself began his education outside of statistics. “I started out as an economist,” he says. “I went to the London School of Economics as an undergraduate and I was going to be an economist, but I took a statistics course and was just so overwhelmed by how useful it was and how interesting it was that I switched to statistics.”

But why statistics?

“Statistics is a beautiful way of making use of your quantitative skills because it combines the elegance of mathematics and theory, and yet it’s incredibly practical,” says Goldman. “It helps us answer really important questions.”

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