Recently named by the Princeton Review as one of America’s 300 best professors, Dr. Diane Evans clearly loves what she does. Evans, who teaches mostly statistics and quality control (see her explanation of Six Sigma here) courses, is known for using fun, real-life examples to reinforce math concepts. She’s also known for being available and accessible to students with questions or problems. As a graduate student, Evans was one of the few women in her advanced math courses, and she’s particularly passionate about the importance of STEM education. Here, Dr. Evans shares her philosophy on making math subjects relevant and interesting, and her views on what constitutes good teaching.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
I started teaching mathematics at Wittenberg University with just my Master’s degree. I stayed there two years and then took a permanent position teaching at Virginia Wesleyan College, again with just my Master’s. I realized at that point that I would never be assigned to teach anything beyond algebra or pre-calculus with a Master’s. Because of my desire to reach students in subjects beyond those that they had already seen in high school, I would need to pursue my PhD. This was something I wanted to do, but I didn’t start until I was mentally prepared for the commitment. In earning my PhD, I was able to create a “probability programming language” (called APPL: A Probability Programming Language) with my advisor and one of his former PhD students. The program was a first in the mathematics world to try to put a “language” to the random variable mathematics that is done in probability. It has been downloaded (free at http://www.applsoftware.com/) and supported by our team for over 10 years now. It is capable of aiding researchers and students in their studies much in the same way that a statistical package, such as SAS, SPSS, or Minitab, does for statistics. I believe this personal achievement has advanced what educators can do in the classroom when teaching probability and what researchers can do in their own personal fields using the program’s abilities to explore and simplify their calculations.
I would say though my most important professional achievement was receiving my PhD, which led to teaching at one of the finest engineering schools in the country, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I have been able to influence so many lives by being able to teach the courses that I love. Although my degree is in probability, at Rose I have been teaching mostly courses in statistics and quality control. Through my efforts in making these classes the best that I possibly can, students have been able to thrive in their statistical knowledge and carry it into their internships and professional careers. I have been able to try many different methods of education in the classroom, and although some may seem silly, they are all innovative in my mind. In the quality control classes, students bring in their favorite “un-quality” products on Friday for a contest. It is like “show and tell” from grade school, but they all remember these Friday events and share them with me in emails years later. They also send me their “un-quality” products from their workplaces or what they encounter in their daily lives – e.g., four plastic forks stuck together as one, a Ziploc bag with an unsealed bottom, a sealed Lifesavers wrapper with ½ a Lifesaver, a defective bike crank.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
As a result of my research efforts, our APPL team has received emails from instructors who have improved their courses using APPL and researchers who have solved certain problems using APPL.
As an instructor, I think I have given students an appreciation for statistics beyond the “boring” formulas. They think about statistics when they leave my courses, and they see applications for data and experiments everywhere they go. As part of their final exam, I asked them for possible applications of statistical projects, and their ideas are original and part of their daily lives, such as measuring electricity use, improving their golf putting games, reducing bottlenecks in the student cafeteria, etc. They “see” statistics now everywhere… in fact, we share pictures of the normal distribution (bell curve) that we see
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
As long as you are passionate about what you teach and the students can feel this, students will respect and respond to you. Don’t be shy in letting students know that you love what you do.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I think the biggest way that I’ve applied technology in my work is through the way I now communicate with students. I was telling a colleague just last week that the majority of my student conversations occur between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. in the morning. When I go home to work at night, I’m always connected to the Internet, and I encourage students to correspond with me when they have questions. Since most of them begin their work in the late evening, it’s quite typical for me to receive at least half dozen questions after 10 p.m.
Students don’t seek me out in my office as much as they used to before computers and smart phones were commonplace.
I’ll get texts from students during the day asking if I’m in my office and IM’s at night when we they want to have a conversation about a problem. Just lately I’ve started using Microsoft Lync’s whiteboard ability as another online communication tool to be able to draw equations and figures. I also began making short Jing (freeware) videos to post to complement my lectures/labs in class. At least several times a week, my statistics classes use statistical software (Minitab) to analyze data we collect in class from tossing coins, dropping cards, measuring M&M thicknesses with calipers, shooting balls out of catapults, etc.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Being at a top-ranked engineering college, grades are a definite motivator for students. I try to encourage my students to think beyond grades and to learn for the sake of better understanding the world around them and to become a problem solver. Mathematics is far more than rote memorization – it is problem solving at its best. I want my students to dig for the meaning behind the symbols and formulas in the textbooks. Since there are so many resources available for solving equations, running analyses on data, and looking up formulas and tables, I want students to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Anyone can click a button and get answers with today’s technological advances, but the true learner will know what the answer means and why he or she clicked that button to get it. I want students to feel free to talk in class and generate discussions about the material without the fear of being “downgraded” for a wrong word or phrase.
Grades should not stifle students’ creativity or enthusiasm to try, say, or do something unexpected when solving a problem.
What is your country doing right to support education?
STEM education was not something being discussed when I went to college; I just knew that I liked mathematics, and I wasn’t deterred by the 20:1 male to female ratio in my upper-level math classes. I was aware of the imbalance of genders in my classes, but it never mattered to me because I was confident in what I wanted to learn. STEM fields are now being advertised and highlighted across the country, and opportunities for grade school children to participate in STEM activities are growing – robotics camps, websites promoting weekly labs and explorations (e.g., http://www.egfi-k12.org/), field trips to STEM industries (e.g., Eli Lilly, Cummins), etc. STEM fields are also being promoted to females through organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, NASA and even the Girl Scouts.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
For a low income family, it has already become a financial burden or impossibility to send a student to the college of his or her choice, or sometimes any college for that matter.
The price of a good education is inordinate, and a bachelor’s degree is a basic requirement for a worthwhile job in a student’s field. In fact, I see the master’s degree becoming what a bachelor’s used to be.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Although technology is making online course options readily available and innovation on many levels is possible (neat presentation styles like Prezi or videos), I think there is still a lot of room for improvement for innovation in the classroom setting. We must engage students with activities, visual aids, conversation, and real-life situations that make the material we are teaching come alive. Students engage in and remember lessons from unique classroom experiences; the old lecture style formats do not work with today’s students. The physical act of rolling a die (rather than simulating it with a computer) is an activity that lets students “buy-into” the data they are collecting. Using weighted dice (unbeknownst to them) will give them unexpected results and allow them to see how it is possible to reject a hypothesis that they were certain of; i.e., the probability of obtaining a “6” on a given roll is 1/6.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Allow your passion and excitement for your area of interest to show. Try new teaching methods and be willing to accept that some of them may not work.
Do not be afraid to run experiments in which you are not sure of the outcome yourself. Even a “wrong” answer or unintended outcome from an experiment can prove to provide a good learning experience for the students and yourself.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
Again, I do think the competitiveness of jobs and getting into good schools are causing students to care more about final grades than learning. I do think the online learning
trend is helping students, even though it cannot replace the classroom experience. These online learning tools are an additional supplement to support learning – live chats, virtual whiteboards, course management systems, etc.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I would like every child to have an opportunity to be taught by someone who is passionate about what they do and cares about the future of that child. I want every child to see how it is fun to pursue something that he or she loves, no matter what that may be. When you see someone who loves what they do (e.g., helping customers find the right product for their needs, instructing someone in a class or hobby, cooking wonderful food, caring for people or animals), you want to emulate that in your own life.
About Dr. Diane Evans,
Associate Professor of Mathematics, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Dr. Diane Evans began teaching in 1988 as an undergraduate teaching assistant in the mathematics department at The Ohio State University.
After teaching at Wittenberg University and Virginia Wesleyan, Evans joined Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, widely recognized as one of the country’s top engineering schools. Evans, who was named one of America’s top 300 undergraduate professors for 2011 by the Princeton Review, has been recognized by both students and colleagues as an effective and committed educator who not only helps students become comfortable with mathematics, but inspires passion for the subject.
Birthplace: Akron, Ohio, USA
Current residence: Terre Haute, Indiana, USA
Education: BS in Math from the Ohio State University (1990), MA in Math from Ohio State (1992), MS in Operations Research from The College of William & Mary (1998), PhD in Applied Science from The College of William & Mary (2001)
Websites I check every day: Yahoo news, Yahoo weather (I’m a weather junkie)Person who inspires me most: My mother
Favorite childhood memory: Playing outside from dawn until dusk every day in the summer, and going to the ocean for the first time
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): New York City for Diversity Conference: both work and pleasure!
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Yesterday… my friend and I heard a funny story about the Tyrannosaurus Rex on NPR and why they have “such small fingers” – they were made for tickling … we can’t stop repeating the story in a high brow scientific tone and laughing about the small fingers on a dinosaur for tickling.
Favorite book: “Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce” by Sylvia Jukes Morris
Favorite music: I love watching “Glee” for the music – they have a nice mix of the old and the new. In general, I like just about any music with a good beat since I’m a drummer. My favorite singer is Sarah McLachlan.
Your favorite quote or motto: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.”