Alumni Spotlight – Erin Blankenship

Photo: Erin Blankenship

Erin Blankenship is a professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her areas of expertise are nonlinear fixed and mixed effects models and statistics education. She received the National Mu Sigma Rho’s 2013 William D. Warde Statistical Education Award and was named an American Statistical Association Fellow in 2015.

What is your fondest memory of your time as a statistics graduate student at NC State?

Making great friends who I am still friends with today. I catch up with a lot of my friends from the graduate program at JSM. Even though I see them once a year, I still feel very close to them.

Did you always know that you wanted to work in academia when you were in graduate school?

I knew I wanted to go into academia from the time that I started graduate school. I went to graduate school with that sole goal in mind. It really had to do with teaching. I got to teach as an undergrad and it was an amazing experience. I am a super-introverted person but you wouldn’t know that when I teach. I feel most at home in a classroom. It’s like my own personal stage. Also, the interaction that I have with the students is the best part of my job.

When did you start to study statistics education? What are the main areas of focus in your research on statistics education? What kind of impact do you hope to achieve?

I didn’t start studying statistics education until I had tenure. Before I got tenure, I was a little worried if it would be considered “tenure-worthy”, and so I hadn’t really thought about it that much. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) got a big National Science Foundation grant called “Math in the Middle”. The purpose of this grant was to develop mathematics courses for in-service middle school teachers. The principal investigators wanted a course in statistics and so they asked me to develop it. I worked on the course with middle school teachers and really enjoyed it. After this experience, I became more intentional with my research area and decided to study the scholarship of teaching, and not just how to be a better teacher. I work on K-12 teacher development in mathematical statistics courses. Currently, there is a lot of work being done to modernize the Introduction to Statistics class. Why can’t we use these same ideas to modernize the upper level courses in statistics? Even if we don’t change the content, we can think about how to present certain concepts. We could present the concept in a cohesive way instead of as disparate math facts. I’m hoping that my efforts will impact the students in the classes of these teachers. A lot of the teachers come in scared of statistics themselves and we are not sure why that is the case. The course that pre-service high school teachers take at UNL is heavy in probability theory with some data analysis concepts, but these teachers don’t get the best impression of statistics from this course. After taking the course, these teachers go on to teach AP Statistics, but AP Statistics is mostly about the applications of statistics and not about probability theory. We know that if the teachers are scared, their students will be scared. We want to help them get over their fear and see that statistics is all about telling stories with numbers. I hope to change the perception and the presentation of mathematical statistics courses for teachers and for students.

You were recently inducted as an ASA fellow for innovation and leadership in K-12 teacher development; for excellence in teaching, mentoring, and inspiring future teachers, teaching assistants, and statistics education researchers; and for interdisciplinary collaboration and service to the profession. What accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of two of them. I am super proud of the teaching assistant training program that we built at UNL. Our TAs are some of the best teachers in the Statistics Department. I am super proud of them. I believe that the Introduction to Statistics course is the public face of our department. So many undergraduates take the course. It is so important that the class is taught well. Our TAs do a phenomenal job. The other accomplishment that I am proud of is of our former TAs who are now faculty around the country. They graduate from our department and continue to do a great job teaching students in statistics at other universities.

Is there anything you wished you had learned or done as a student that would have helped you later in your career?

I wish I had gotten more exposure to collaborative work with other disciplines. I came to UNL with a fresh Ph.D. and was asked to design experiments. All I was thinking was that these people are spending all this money on their experiments and I have no idea what I am doing. I remember the first time that I went into a greenhouse, the researchers were talking about gradients and I didn’t know what they were but I just had to jump in and design the experiment. It was a crazy time for me in the beginning. The other thing that helped me early in my career was having mentors. I had great mentors when I started my faculty job. They were very important to my career.

What are some lessons that you have learned during your career that would be helpful to other professionals in statistics?

Finding a mentor is the best thing that you can do for your career. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially when starting with collaborations early in your career. I might have asked some really truly stupid questions, but that’s OK. We are experts in statistics and are not expected to know, say, engineering, as an expert, so we need to ask questions when there is something that we don’t understand. With collaborations, you really have to feel comfortable to ask a lot of questions even when you feel that they may be stupid questions.

What are some work habits that have led to success in your career?

Staying on top of everything and trying not to get behind.

What kinds of methods do you use a lot now?

In statistics education, I do a lot of curriculum development. I do a lot of collaborative work with other researchers, such as with entomologists, and I use nonlinear mixed/fixed effects models to estimate emergence curves.

What is the best advice you would give to current graduate students in statistics?

Be open to opportunities that might not seem like a natural fit. I would have never thought about statistics education before making the statistics course for the NSF grant. Before that course, I never seriously thought about working with teachers. But I am so glad that I did because I am truly passionate about statistics education.

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