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Teaching Courses On Probability And Statistics For Engineers: Classical Topics In The Modern Technological Era

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Starting the Last Day with New Ideas

Tagged Division

Industrial Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.1130.1 - 14.1130.8



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Paper Authors


Natarajan Gautam Texas A&M University

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Dr. Gautam is an Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Texas A&M University since Fall 2005. Prior to that he was on the faculty at the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Penn State University for eight years. He teaches courses in applied probability and stochastic processes. Dr. Gautam has taught eight different courses in each of the universities he has worked in and has won several teaching awards. His research is in design, control and performance evaluation of stochastic systems with emphasis on computer-communication networks and transportation. Dr. Gautam is a member of ASEE, INFORMS and IIE.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Teaching Courses on Probability and Statistics for Engineers: Classical Topics in the Modern Technological Era


Most Industrial Engineering departments offer courses on applied probability and/or statistics to engineering students. These courses often tend to be perceived as dry and far removed from engineering. This poses a significant challenge for instructors, especially junior faculty members that have been assigned to teach such courses. Not only do they have to spend significant amount of time away from research to make interesting classroom material, but they also have to teach material that is not even remotely close to what they do for research. To make matters worse, since the High School curriculum in the United States does not mandate a basic foundation in probability and statistics, most students are extremely unprepared and hence the instructors have to start at a phenomenally fundamental level.

The objective of this paper is to describe some strategies to overcome the concerns mentioned above and effectively educate engineering students on topics in applied probability and statistics. The first aspect is to teach a predominantly chalk-and-talk type of class by carefully using technology in strategic places and avoiding technology in certain other places. We quantitatively evaluate the effectiveness of our strategies and provide insights. Next, a good portion of this paper is devoted to one specific use of technology which is in laboratory-like exercises. These exercises were developed to teach more difficult concepts such as Central Limit Theorem and show how it applies to project evaluation and review technique (PERT). As a result, not only did the student understanding of complex material improve, but also the material was covered in a much shorter time. Finally the paper concludes with a qualitative discussion of issues where it is unclear whether technology boosts or hinders understanding of concepts in applied probability and statistics.


Courses on applied probability and statistics are usually part of almost all Industrial Engineering undergraduate curricula. A large subset of these courses is usually offered by Industrial/Systems Engineering departments itself and the rest are perhaps offered by statistics departments. In fact many Industrial/Systems Engineering departments even offer service courses on these topics to other engineering students as well. Typically these courses involve basic probability, elementary statistics, quality control and sometimes even stochastic models for operations research. Based on the author’s dozen years of teaching such courses as well as reputed colleagues that have taught such courses for over 25 years in Research-I universities, the remaining observations in this section of the paper are made. These courses, especially the probability parts, often tend to be perceived (by students especially) as dry and far removed from engineering because the material is rather abstract and the only skill needed to be successful is a strong foundation in mathematics.

However, the lack of motivation is not the only issue. The students typically do not have the right background either to get a full appreciation of the materials taught in these courses. This is

Gautam, N. (2009, June), Teaching Courses On Probability And Statistics For Engineers: Classical Topics In The Modern Technological Era Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--4578

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