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Professor Uses Literature, Science, Humanities to Teach Mathematical Concepts


If Bill Harper’s classroom confuses you, it won’t be for the lack of clarity on the topic. It will be because you might be unsure if you are sitting in a statistics, psychology, religion or English class.

You’ll see notes about reliability analysis on the board, and you’ll hear him reading a poem or discussing Beowulf. With his academic background in computer engineering, statistics, and industrial engineering, one expects an analytical, fact-oriented approach in Professor Harper’s teaching style. Instead, you find that he pulls in gems from literature, sciences and the humanities to help his students overcome their fear of the concepts that he teaches. He shares David Whyte’s poem Faith to help students believe in their own abilities to learn the materials.

As a licensed industrial engineer, he travelled the world evaluating pipelines, bridges and highways - many in Saudi Arabia. He continues to do reliability analysis and consulting work. Now he teaches in three graduate programs: the MBA program, the Doctor of Nursing Practice, and in the Masters of Allied Health programs.

 “I am lucky to be working at the interface of disciplines. You’ll never be able to know everything about a subject, but you can look at what others are doing in their fields, how they are finding success. You can learn from it, and apply it to your own discipline.” Harper does this with his own field of statistics by applying it to epidemiology and co-teaching a course in the subject.

Professor Harper enjoys working with graduate students because “their focus is different. Students don’t have big blocks of time to learn the subject and they are willing to devote the effort and they are persistent.”

“They [graduate students] don’t give up when they encounter difficulties. They don’t get stuck on small issues and they want to see how their knowledge of statistics can be applied in the workplace,” Harper explains. He advises them to be open and speak up. “Don’t be shy. If you wonder how things are applicable, ask. The students who seem to do the best are those that help others. Help others and let us know how we can help you.”

He learns from his students and colleagues all the time, “I don’t mind showing my ignorance. I ask a lot of questions and I try to listen more. People love to tell you what they know.”

The biggest thrill Professor Harper gets in teaching is “when someone has the “ah-ha” moment, especially in a difficult class. That is what makes it worthwhile.” Whether through poetry, multiple approaches to information, or an extra explanation, Harper moves his students towards deeper knowledge and success.