Statistically Significant

June 1, 2007
Tangible teaching: Reiter helps students understand how statistics apply to everyday life

Tangible teaching: Reiter helps students understand how statistics apply to everyday life. Megan Morr

In Jerry Reiter's introductory statistics classes, his students say, it doesn't matter whether you are a math nerd on the Ph.D. track or a liberal-arts major fulfilling a curriculum requirement--you will be stimulated.

Reiter '92, an assistant professor of statistics and decision sciences, wants students to see how statistics are applicable to their daily lives, using tangible examples drawn from economics, medicine, public policy, sports, and the natural and social sciences. As he told Duke Magazine ("The Art of Enlightenment," November-December 2006), "My philosophy on teaching has always been to try to make it interesting. You have to let that passion come through."

Reiter's passion for his subject, as well as his genuine enthusiasm for his students' progress, has earned him the Duke Alumni Association's 2007 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award (ADUTA). In nominating him, one student noted that "Classes on statistics don't usually have the reputation for being great experiences. At best, they're supposed to be boring and bearable. At worst, they've been called mind-deadening and agonizing. But in this professor's statistics class, almost every stereotype about how statistics should be seems irrelevant."

After graduating from Duke with a major in mathematics, Reiter earned both his master's and Ph.D. in math from Harvard University. He taught at Williams College and the University of California at Santa Barbara before taking a post at Duke in 2002. In addition to his academic appointments, Reiter is a senior fellow at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences and an associate editor of Survey Methodology, the Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality, and the Journal of the American Statistical Association. He also serves on the National Academy of Sciences' Panel on Dynamics of Economic Well-Being Systems and the National Center for Education Statistics Confidentiality Task Force.

This was Reiter's third nomination for the ADUTA award. As in past letters of endorsement, this year's nominators cited the engaging classroom atmosphere that Reiter creates from the start of the semester. "The first day of class," wrote one student, "the professor shook my hand and introduced himself to me and to each one of the 125 students as they walked in. There was already a puzzle up on the board: a map of 19th-century London with blue dots in every home where someone died of cholera. On that first day of class, [Reiter] promised we could use statistics to unravel the mystery of the deaths and find their source by looking at their distribution. And we did!

"I enjoyed this professor's eager and enthusiastic teaching style [so much] that I convinced another senior, an English major, to take the class with me not as a requirement ... but to benefit in our last semester from the passion of a gifted instructor."

The Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award will be presented to Reiter during Founders' Day ceremonies on September 27. The award includes a $5,000 stipend and $1,000 for Duke Libraries to purchase materials recommended by the recipient.