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Crunching big data: WSU launches new undergrad data program, first in region

Crunching big data: WSU launches new undergrad data program, first in region

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Data is everywhere — and lots of it.

Winona State University has launched a new program to help prepare graduates to get into the business of making sense of it all.

Students, faculty and community members gathered on the WSU campus Monday to celebrate the school’s new data science program — offered through the department of mathematics and statistics — considered to be the first undergraduate degree of its kind in the Upper Midwest.

On the agenda were a series of speakers, featuring Jessica Utts of University of California-Irvine, president-elect of the American Statistical Association, and recent graduates of the statistics program.

The new program, approved officially last fall, was formulated in response to changing demands in the field, Brant Deppa, chair of WSU the Mathematics and Statistics Department and department faculty member Chris Malone explained in an earlier interview.

That’s primarily been driven by the sheer volume and types of data people and organizations can collect and store today, Deppa said — what you buy on Amazon, heart rates over time, bike speeds, steps per day. With the maturation of the internet and new technologies, it’s easier and cheaper to keep track of all of that and more.

Integrating statistics, computer science and communication skills, the new program trains students to wrangle all that data — which can come in huge swaths and in all different forms — and turn it into actionable insights for businesses and other organizations to help solve problems and make things better.

The program also requires upper-level coursework in another content area — business, environmental science, whatever the student chooses — to give them insight into a field they might choose to enter post-graduation.

As faculty developed the curriculum, Malone said, they consulted extensively with other departments on campus, computer science in particular. They also brought in employers across disciplines early on and throughout the process — Fastenal, Medtronic, Mayo Clinic, Target and more — to get their input on what skills would make the best candidate for the types of people they’d be looking for to fill their data needs.

And the department anticipates there will be a continuing need — the U.S. faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 data scientists, according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute.

WSU has been ahead of the curve in statistics education for years, Deppa said — the school was only surpassed in the number of statistics graduates by the University of Minnesota and some other larger state schools in the region in the last four or five years.

In fact, even before the data science program officially took off, the statistics faculty had their students doing that type of work.

For their capstone project, statistics seniors Paige Ng and Yao Li are working with Intel, analyzing Arizona weather data dating back as far as 1987 to help determine where might be the best spot to invest in a solar radiation station. Statistics senior Brian Barbeln has been working as an intern at Fastenal analyzing human resources data for Fastenal comparing head count to sales growth, among other things.

“So it was natural for us to say, we’ve been leading way in statistics, let’s lead the way in data science,” Deppa said.

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