Lifetime achievement award for statistics education leader

02 February 2016
Associate Professor Maxine Pfannkuch

If you studied statistics at secondary school in the last quarter of a century, your learning was influenced by Maxine Pfannkuch of the Department of Statistics. Associate Professor Pfannkuch studies how people, mostly school students, draw statistical conclusions from data and from graphics, and looks for ways to teach them to do it better. Her work has led to many improvements to high-school statistics curricula here and overseas.

And Associate Professor Pfannkuch’s contribution has been recognised with a lifetime achievement award from the 68-year-old New Zealand Statistical Association (NZSA). The Campbell Award commemorates Professor James Towers Campbell (1906-1994), who was the first president of the NZSA. The award requires an “exceptional” publication record, and “prolonged and outstanding” contribution to statistical education as well as involvement in “major, innovative research projects that have direct relevance to New Zealand”.

Says Associate Professor Pfannkuch, “I work in the background as part of a collaborative team effort to improve statistics education, rather than working upfront. But I feel very honoured that people I respect have recognised not only my work – but also the importance of the field in which I work.”

Associate Professor Pfannkuch started her career as a secondary school maths teacher before moving into academia – her PhD looked at the characterisation of statistical thinking. 

She has spent her entire career working on improving the teaching and learning of statistics at secondary school and, more recently, university undergraduate level, focusing in particular on building students’ conceptual understanding of statistics and probability.

She and “wonderful teams of statisticians and teachers” have developed tools and tasks that help students grasp more difficult concepts such as sampling variability.

Associate Professor Pfannkuch says it’s important to get statistics education right at high-school level, as it gives students a toolkit for life, even if they don’t use statistics in their careers. 

“We’re in an information-laden and data-based world, and there are lots of persuasive arguments in the media purporting to be evidence-based,” she says.

“Students who are critical consumers of statistical information are able to determine if what they’re being told is accurate, and that means they can fully participate in society.”

Associate Professor Pfannkuch received the award at the NZSA and Operations Research Society of New Zealand joint conference at the University of Canterbury, which took place in late November.

At the same conference, Mark Holmes won the Littlejohn Award for research excellence. Dr Holmes has become a world expert in the theory of random walks and the analysis of high-dimensional models in statistical physics. In simpler terms, that means he studies random processes that accumulate over time — like the shape of the trail left by a randomly-moving point. His award commemorates Roger Littlejohn (1955-2011), a former NZSA president.