Longtime Stat 100 professor to move on to advanced courses

Professor Ellen Fireman teaching Statistics 100 class at Lincoln hall theater on Apr. 17.

For over a decade, University students have known the name Professor Ellen Fireman through Statistics 100. The course has fulfilled thousands of students’ general education requirements and has stood as a cornerstone class for underclassmen. For the first time since 2000, Professor Fireman will be stepping down from the classroom’s podium in Lincoln Hall Theater. 

Next semester, she will be moving on from Statistics 100, which she refers to as “her baby,” to co-create a new course with John Marden, professor emeritus in Statistics.

“I’ve always wanted to teach a follow-up course to Stat 100,” Fireman said. “I want to take students to the next level so they can apply the statistical ideas to a wider range of problems, but still retain the same focus on understanding,” 

The class will be called Statistics 200 next semester and will be an invitation-only trial course. After the trial period, which typically runs for one semester, the course will likely be called Statistics 250, and more students will be able to take the course, Fireman said.

All the materials for the course will be free, according to Fireman. She is also writing the workbook for the course — as she did for Statistics 100 — and Marden is writing an online textbook that students can use free of charge.  

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Fireman taught the course for the first time when she was a graduate student in 1984 at the University. Since then, Fireman said she has had many unique experiences with her students. Years ago, as she did a long calculation on the board, she told her class, “Follow me, and tell me if I make any mistakes.” 

Two weeks later, a student approached her as she walked from the library to Wright Street to get lunch and claimed she had found her flaw.

“So do you really want to know your mistakes?” The student asked. “You talk to yourself out loud and with your hands. People might think you’re crazy.”

She then asked if she could have extra credit for her efforts.

Despite incidents such as this, Fireman said her most memorable experiences teaching Statistics 100 has come from the impact she has on her students.

“(It is memorable) when students tell me how Stat 100 has influenced their thinking,” she said. “I’ve heard students say that they don’t read the newspaper the same way. They no longer jump to conclusions.”

She also enjoys seeing the “ah-ha” moment when students understand a concept. She said she wants to give students the power to analyze arguments and make decisions for themselves instead of relying on experts. 

Fireman’s students agree that she works hard to keep the class engaged and apply statistics to real-world situations.

“I was shocked that a statistics course could be so engaging,” said Jackie Capron, former student and current teaching assistant for Fireman. “Her lectures came alive, and she made stats seem important.”

Another quality of Fireman’s Statistics 100 class that students enjoy is how it makes them think outside the box.

“She really taught all of us to view the world in a completely different way,” said Jesse Favre, former student and former teaching assistant for Fireman. “I still think about what I learned in Stat 100.”

Wanting the best teaching staff for her students, Fireman said she hand-picks former students as her teaching assistants for Statistics 100.

“In the past, it was hard to find TAs who understood the material and really wanted to teach it,” she said. “Thanks to many wonderful undergrad assistants and some excellent dedicated grad students, that problem has been solved.”

Capron and Favre said they have enjoyed working with Fireman. Favre said one of her favorite memories is getting together with Fireman and her other TAs to do grading sessions. Favre said she is allergic to cheese, so Fireman would make sure to get a cheese-less pizza for her. 

“She made something boring feel like we were at a party,” Favre said. “She wanted to make sure we all had a positive experience.”

Bianca Doherty, another former student and teaching assistant of Fireman’s, said she appreciates the professor’s attitude and perspective.

“(I admire) her overall passion for life and everything she does,” Doherty said. “She’s never afraid to be herself, and she lets her personality shine through.”

Besides the struggle to find teaching assistants that fit the class well, another obstacle Fireman said she faces as a professor is the lack of space. Fireman does not have her own office, and said she has had trouble finding a place to meet with students. She recalled a time when she had to hold a review session on the Quad.

“Fortunately, the weather was great,” she said.

Although Fireman has been a professor for 21 years, she started her teaching experience as a pre-school teacher.

“Little kids are filled with a sense of wonder,” she said. 

She had also worked with middle school and high school students before becoming a professor, as well as teaching her mother math.

University students have already begun to show she will be missed. On Tuesday night, Fireman gave a lecture in the Illini Union Ballroom after students voted to hear from her one last time before graduation, according to the University’s calendar event page. She shared her own interesting life lessons, including scandalous jokes and important facts and tips for success in not becoming just “another statistic.”

Though Fireman is exploring her new course, she said she will still be involved in Statistics 100. 

Fireman said she is planning on being involved in writing the exams next semester and may even teach the class again someday in the future. However, she said she is confident that the people teaching the course next year — instructors Karle Laska and Uma Ravat — will do it justice.

“I couldn’t bear to leave Stat 100, my baby, until I was sure that it was in good hands and strong enough to survive without me,” Fireman said. “It’s a special course, and I needed to find special teachers and special teaching tools to make sure it would survive after I’ve left.”

Abby can be reached at [email protected].