What are the odds of at least two students in a class of 50 sharing the same birth month and day?
When J. Brian Gray poses this question to his class, he means to grab their attention while at the same time proving statistics can defy intuition. The answer usually surprises students: There is a 97 percent probability of that happening.
Gray works hard to keep EMBA students interested in a subject that they might prefer to otherwise avoid. He does so by finding relevant examples and showing them how they can use statistics at work.
Throughout the years, he has developed realistic business cases that require statistical data analysis as part of their solution. “I use these cases as motivational examples in class and as EMBA team assignments,” says Gray, former associate dean, statistics professor, and James I. Harrison Family Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow at the University of Alabama Manderson Graduate School of Business.
To help statistics come alive, he also assigns a semester-long data analysis project (DAP), where students apply statistical tools to evaluate data from their own organizations. Not only does the project pique student interest, it also helps their organization.
“More often than not, there is also immediate impact and value for the student’s employer, which validates the students’ involvement in the EMBA Program,” says Gray. “One EMBA student’s DAP led to $1 million dollars in savings per year for his company.”
In adapting to a blended format, Gray also found another avenue for student engagement. “I realized it would be best to record all the lectures and flip the classroom,” he says.
Since they can watch them more than once, the recorded lectures make it easier for students to better understand the material, he says. And it frees time in the class for more discussion.
Gray is known for his willingness to work one-on-one with students when they need help. His teaching awards, including the Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award from the University’s National Alumni Association, reflect the success of his dedication.
True to that commitment, he is always on the lookout for new examples and cases to spur student interest in statistics and is looking to integrate his recent research in data mining and machine learning in the future.
His reward comes when students tell him they used statistics to solve a work problem with great results. “That lets me know that they got something valuable from the class.”