"I am interested in statistics but in my heart I am an operations researcher": An interview with Nicola Ward Petty


  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 28 Mar 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Dr Petty

Dr Nicola Ward Petty taught business statistics and operations research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand for over twenty years. She was awarded a university teaching award in 2006 and in 2008, Dr Petty began to create videos for her class, teaching aspects of Excel and statistics.

By placing them on YouTube for her students to gain easy access, this also helped gain a wider audience. Many videos have received over 100,000 views in two years. These are available via the Creative Heuristics YouTube channel. These videos form part of an iPad app “AtMyPace: Statistics”.

Dr Petty is an accomplished presenter, making statistical analysis accessible to a wide range of people. She has given presentations for groups such as physiotherapists, teachers and speech/language therapists, to help them in their understanding of the role and method of statistical analysis. Last year, she was one of the winners of the Greenfield Challenge awarded by ENBIS.

With her colleague and co-director of Creative Heuristics Ltd, Dr Shane Dye, Dr Petty invented Rogo, a new puzzle which is now an iPhone/iPad app. You can see more about Rogo at the website www.rogopuzzle.co.nz .

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1) Please could you tell us more about your background and how you came to recognise statistics as a discipline in the first place?

I embarked on a maths degree in order to become a maths teacher, and discovered Operations Research about the time I discovered that I was not interested in pure maths. So I majored in Operations Research, and statistics was a necessary evil as part of the OR tool kit. So although I am interested in statistics, in my heart I am an operations researcher.

2) What was it that inspired you to pursue a career in statistics?

I was employed as a tutor during my honours year in OR, and had to teach the stats methods paper. Later I went back to university as a part-time tutor and ended up with stats methods again – so I pretty much fell into it. Statistics is more a part of everyday life for most people, so there is a greater market for teachers of statistics.

3) You were a professor of business statistics and operations research at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand where you taught for 20 years. Over the years, how did the teaching of statistics evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of students?

I was made redundant in 2012 partly due to the Christchurch earthquakes, and partly due to a myopic managerialist viewpoint that failed to see the value of Operations Research in a post-disaster community! Having said that, I was thrilled to take redundancy and try something new – my own business teaching teachers and students about statistics.

It pretty much didn’t in the Stats department at UC, so we set up a new course based in the Department of Management that was more conducive to the non-mathematically inclined business students. It was a blended learning course, based on Personalised System of Instruction, implemented using an LMS, in this case, Blackboard, and then Moodle. Our course focussed on understanding what was happening, rather than the mathematics behind it. The other changes I have seen have been driven by the availability of software, such as Minitab, Excel and SPSS. This has enabled students to look at real problems, rather than play with trivial examples.

4) How did your teaching and research motivate and influence each other? Did you get research ideas from statistics and incorporate them into your teaching?

I was never much of a researcher – my interest has always been in teaching. (Possibly why redundancy was a good idea!) One of the main sources of ideas was from working with Honours projects which involved helping local businesses with Operations Research-type problems. My PhD research used mixed methods research, and Hierarchical Linear modelling. It helped me to see things in much less black-and-white terms as a result of actually applying methods.

5) Congratulations on the success of the Statistical Learning Centre and your blog. What were your original aims in setting up the video tutorials?

Thanks. I started making the videos to avoid having to explain the same thing repeatedly to students. My first video was “Absolute and Relative References in Excel”, as I had discovered that the same explanation worked for just about every student, but for some reason they had to hear it individually as well as in the lecture. My son helped me make the video, and made it entertaining, and it was really well received. In the labs if a student didn’t understand the concept we would tell them to watch the video and if they still didn’t understand, then we would explain. It saved a lot of explaining! So we decided there were other topics that needed this treatment and started on them. Our video, “Understanding the p-value” got a surprising number of hits on YouTube and was on the first page of a Google search. That was when we realised that there was an untapped need for clear entertaining videos about statistics.

6) What do you feel has been the lasting effect of this site? In other words, has it helped to achieve what you wanted in terms of teaching statistics?

Hmmm – lasting effect. There are an increasing number of students and teachers who use our videos, so I guess I’m helping them by explaining statistics in an understandable and enjoyable way.

Statistics is more a part of everyday life for most people, so there is a greater market for teachers of statistics.

7) You have since created with your colleague, Dr Shane Dye, an app known as Rogo. Please could you tell us more about this app and how it came about?

Rogo is a pen and paper puzzle based on the sport of rogaining, which is a form of orienteering. I was trying to invent a board game, and we discovered that this was a fun puzzle. It is a prize-collecting, subset-selection travelling salesperson problem on a rectilinear grid with obstacles. Shane and I invented the format and an algorithm to solve them. We hoped we had come up with the next Sudoku, but I think we needed to market it a bit better! Then we turned it into an iOS app, that you can buy for iPhone and iPad.

8) Is there a particular piece of work (research or otherwise) that you are proudest of?

My son Jonathan is blind and autistic, and recently completed his first year of a degree in Jazz music, and got A’s for his performance papers. He is a happy young man, and making a contribution to the world. I’m pretty proud of him. My other son (William Petty – I didn’t realise the history behind the name when we chose it) taught me all I know about video-editing and is a wonderful father. So – proud of him too.

9) What has been the best book on statistics (and or business/operations research) that you have ever read?

The Challenge of Developing Statistical Literacy, Reasoning and Thinking edited by Dani Ben-Zvi and Joan Garfield. It is my bible.

10) Do you think over the years too much research has focussed on less important areas of statistics? Should the gap between research and applications get reduced? How so and by whom?

If it is anything like Operations Research, it has probably lost track of the contextual basis of its existence and needs to be more practical.

11) What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the profession of statisticians in the coming years?

A problem in common with OR is of attracting young people to study statistics.

12) Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

Hans Daellenbach was the man who introduced me to OR, and mentored me in my early academic career. All the OR group at UC were helpful.

I met George Cobb in 2008 when I was on a sabbatical. I had read one of his papers and wanted to meet the man. He gave me a whole stack of his writing, which I found inspirational, and I would say my enthusiasm for the teaching of statistics started then.

13) If you had not got involved in the field of statistics, what do you think you would have done? (Is there another field that you could have seen yourself making an impact on?)

I still have to write a novel, and I’m interested in politics.

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