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Professor Inspires Students to See Statistics

Robert Jernigan in front of the photos that inspired him to create the video. Photo by Vanessa Robertson.

Have you ever feel like the phrase “seeing is believing” held true for a subject in class? Statistics professor Robert Jernigan is out to prove that sometimes all you have to do is open your eyes to see how statistics can show up in life outside of the textbook.

Jernigan submitted his video “Through the Eyes of a Statistician” to the American Statistical Association’s 2011 Promoting the Practice and Profession of Statistics Video Competition. Jernigan and his costar, AU alumna and daughter Laura Jernigan Sherman, received the “Best Evidence of Inspiring Students” award from the ASA for their video, which shows how statistics is all around us—even on doorknobs.

While Jernigan jokes that his acting skills are minimal, he proves that his inspirational teaching skills are through the roof.


What made you submit a video to the film competition?
I’ve been collecting images that illustrate statistical concepts for years—patterns of wear and use that show the accumulated effects of many actions. This seemed like a fun way to highlight a few of them. You can see a few more at my blog, www.statpics.com.

What was the filming process like from start to finish?
We had to put up with a thunderous motorcycle parade at the gas pump and Sunday morning customers at the drugstore. Only the parking lot oil stains were cooperative.

What do you think of the other films?

They’re all very creative. I’m such a bad actor, but I’m a worse singer!

What initially sparked your interest in statistics?
Growing up, I wanted to do all things science, but couldn’t settle on one in particular. In college, I was introduced to the quote from the late, great statistician John Tukey, ''The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone's backyard.''

How long have you been in the statistics field?
Much, much longer than not, and I always wanted to teach.

What maintains your interest in teaching statistics?
I continue to develop new ways to demonstrate what can be very difficult concepts. In class I use a rubber band model to illustrate fitting a regression line. We study random sampling with numbered beads. Many times a hands-on approach is best.

What does it mean to you to inspire students?
It’s the only reason to teach.

Are you currently working on any research projects?
When not photographing dirty parking lots, I do collaborative work with evolutionary biologists at the Smithsonian. We study the pattern and extent of zones of bird hybridization. It’s great fun to play in their backyard.