Carnegie Mellon University
May 06, 2015

Rebecca Nugent Wins Ryan Award For Meritorious Teaching

Rebecca Nugent Wins Ryan Award For Meritorious Teaching Rebecca Nugent Wins Ryan Award For Meritorious Teaching You always remember the teachers or advisers who helped shape who you are today.

At this year’s Celebration of Education, Carnegie Mellon University paid tribute to the extraordinary efforts and achievements of four distinguished educators for their unparalleled commitment to helping others succeed.

Rebecca Nugent, associate teaching professor of statistics in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, was recognized as the 2015 recipient of the William H. and Frances S. Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching. The Ryan Award is given to a professor who has demonstrated unusual devotion and effectiveness in teaching.

Nugent is a demanding instructor and mentor known for her high standards and profound impact on students.

She is co-director of the fast-growing undergraduate program in the Department of Statistics, where she has helped shepherd the growth of the undergraduate statistics major and advised innumerable students toward careers in the field.

Nugent teaches a wide variety of statistical methodology classes at CMU but is probably most famous for forcing everyone to rewrite their data analysis reports several times. Students flock to her for advice and write about her ability to engage them both in and out of the classroom.

“Rebecca’s classroom teaching is simply inspirational,” wrote her nominators, professors Joel Greenhouse, Brian Junker and Mark Schervish.  
Nugent actively tries to incorporate challenges and contests into every course she teaches and encourages students to try to surprise her. She expects all her students to try their best and to contribute, and she sincerely believes that every student has something to offer. This kind of personal interaction contributes to the overall sense of community that she builds in her classroom.

Nugent is fearless when it comes to revising courses to meet the diverse needs of her students. She has changed exam formats to accommodate her students’ varying levels of programming skills, leveling the playing field and, rewarding preparation. She revised and renamed the Modern Regression capstone course, introducing modern statistical methods with an emphasis on experiential learning and balancing the practice of statistics with theory. In fall 2006, when she first taught the course, there were 25 students. In fall 2014, 131 students were enrolled.

“We are all familiar with, not to mention intimidated by, the challenges of teaching large introductory courses,” her nominators wrote. “Few of us, however, have had to confront the unique challenges of teaching large upper level courses. Rebecca has done this repeatedly and makes it look easy.”

She recognizes the importance of interacting with real data for training. As a result, almost all of her courses involve writing exams or projects that use large data sets from real research projects.    

Every semester she searches for appropriate data sets, cleans and analyzes the data, does the background research on the problem, and writes a structured exam/project based on the data. She writes at least 10 of these a year and rarely uses the same data set twice. She has collected these research problems/data sets into an easily searchable library that is quickly becoming a fantastic resource for other instructors to use both at CMU and at other universities.

Learn more about this year’s Celebration of Education.
By: Kelly Saavedra