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Judith Canner wins award for making statistics fascinating to students

Judith Canner (center) with UROC and NIH BD2K scholars.
Judith Canner (center) with UROC and NIH BD2K scholars.

Walter Ryce

Published January 25, 2021

The Wang Family Excellence Award recognizes four California State University faculty members and one staff member each year who have contributed and achieved above expectations in their profession.

“Each day CSU faculty and staff are helping students achieve their academic goals and dreams through Graduation Initiative 2025," said Chancellor Joseph I. Castro. "“Stanley Wang and his family’s generous financial gift allows us to provide financial support for these awardees’ ongoing work."

For 2021, one of its few recipients is Dr. Judith Canner, CSUMB professor of Statistics.

In President Eduardo M. Ochoa's nomination letter, he credits Canner's “creativity and innovation in curriculum development and teaching methods” with helping students develop quantitative reasoning — the practice of using math to understand and explain the real world — while working to decrease equity gaps through mentoring, internships, and pathways to careers and graduate school.

“Under her leadership,” Ochoa writes, “the Department of Mathematics and Statistics redesigned first-year mathematics courses … that improve outcomes for students in general, and underrepresented groups in particular.”

Canner, who has taught at CSUMB for 10 years, said that her field is relatively young but increasingly relevant in today’s data-driven landscape.

“Statistics impact how grocery stores are laid out, what ads you see on social media, and what medicine you are prescribed,” she said.

She cautioned that data can be misconstrued and misused, citing historical examples in eugenics, and more modern instances in systematic oppression. But she also argued that data, especially in its visual form, can be a wonder to contemplate.

“I don’t think people often realize just how beautiful data can be,” she said. “There are some amazing data visualizations out there are that are both aesthetically beautiful but also beautifully informative.”

She cites the front page of the New York Times after the April Job Loss Report, and Florence Nightingale’s Rose Diagram of Causes of Mortality.

Her students have responded to her enthusiasm, saying that she has encouraged them to be more skeptical of how data is presented in the media, helped them navigate career options, and offered mentoring that has bolstered their academic journey.

“She makes statistics jokes on holidays,” writes former student Victoria Assad. “Dr. Canner is why I enjoy statistics and data so much.“

Another former student, Clancey Barrington, wrote, “Beyond teaching me statistics, she helped me find confidence in my abilities.”

Canner has been invited to present at data science and statistics symposiums; published research in Assessment Update higher education periodical; contributed an award-winning paper on statistics education at the Joint Mathematics Meetings; and was principal investigator on a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Health.

But she returns her focus to her students.

“I always try to give students the opportunity to explore their own questions, and it is wonderful to see what inspires them,” Canner said. “They will explore silly things like the emotions in ‘Friends’ or ‘The Office.’ On the serious side, students organize government data to look at climate change, pesticide use, or gun violence.”

The Wang award is named after Stanley Wang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with deep connections to the CSU, who endowed the award with a $2.5 million gift in 2017. Education, scholarship and teaching were a top priority for him.

“What drives me to seek improvement in my teaching and to try new things,” Canner continued, “is that I love my students and I want to provide the best possible learning environment for them.”

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