Saint Mary’s College Notre Dame- Rooting fundamentals of Data Science to Build Forward Thinking Professionals

Saint Mary’s College was founded in 1844 by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. These bold women answered the needs of the community and created an institution where women could receive a well-rounded Catholic undergraduate education. The creation of graduate programs, offered to both men and women, was done so in response to the need for quality graduate programs in the areas of autism studies, data science, speech-language pathology, and nursing practice. In turn, the graduates of these programs fill gaps in their respective fields for experienced, well-prepared, forward-thinking professionals.

 

A Comprehensive Way of Data Science Education

Saint Mary’s College started developing the masters in Data Science program about 6 years ago which was launched in August of 2015. The program is a Professional Science Master’s (PSM), housed in the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Saint Mary’s, and as such, the education offered is rooted in fundamentals, while also providing students with professional skills. The primarily online program provides students with the mathematical and computational depth needed to take on complex data challenges facing today’s society and potential issues in the future. Specifically, all students take courses in applied statistics, applied linear algebra, computer programming, data mining, database systems, and data visualization. The electives offered in this program also aid students in developing their skills to become successful practitioners. Courses like project management and communication are designed to produce well-rounded employees ready to advance the field.

 

Imbibing Practical Exposure

Students in the Data Science Master’s degree program at Saint Mary’s are required to complete a practicum project. The practicum at Saint Mary’s College is an opportunity for students to directly experience the work of a data scientist or data analytics professional. It consists of project-based learning on a significant and contributory business objective in conjunction with practicing professionals in one of many appropriate industries. Students may complete the practicum by working on a project at the student’s place of employment or by obtaining an internship in the area of data science.

 

The Leader with Multi-Faceted Excellence

Kristin Kuter is the Director of the Master of Science in Data Science at Saint Mary’s College. She manages the budget and curriculum of the program. She reviews all applications to the program, and advises and helps all the students to secure placements for their capstone practicum projects. Kristin collaborates with corporate and community partners to ensure that the college’s program is meeting the current needs of the industry. Kristin’s background is in probability and statistics, and she teaches a two-semester sequence on applied statistics, which covers the basic statistical techniques, like hypothesis testing and ANOVA, in the first semester, and then in the second semester looks at predictive modeling techniques, such as ridge regression and the lasso.

 

Bringing an Edge to Analytics and Data Science Education

The Data Science program at Saint Mary’s has many advantages over other institutes, including size, location, and mission. First, the relatively small size intentionally allows for the faculty to provide individualized education to each student. Location is also an advantage, which may seem surprising given that the college is not located on the west coast, but rather in South Bend, Indiana. The region has a wonderful mayor devoted to the field and growing the local economy, as well as a Regional Development Authority for the greater South Bend – Elkhart region that also helps promote growth in the industry. “The mission of Saint Mary’s, with a Catholic tradition, gives us an edge for candidates interested in using data science for social good and to make a difference in the world. In addition to all of this, our program is also affiliated as a Professional Science Master’s degree, meaning that our graduates are workforce ready immediately upon graduation,” said Kristin.

 

Contributing to the Growth and Transformation of Analytics

Given that Saint Mary’s program is rooted in the fundamentals of data science, its graduates are prepared to not only use the industry standard data science tools, but are knowledgeable about the theoretical underpinnings of the tools. This means that when they leave Saint Mary’s they are prepared to improve upon the tools currently used and help advance the field. Furthermore, the college hosted the Data Science Hackathon last spring and plans to continue annually, providing an opportunity for students at both the undergraduate and graduate level to gain the first-hand experience in the field. The problems featured in this competition exposed novice data science students to concepts and tools they are just beginning to explore, while at the same time giving an opportunity to more experienced data science students to hone their skills in a practical setting.

 

Recognizing Achievements Through Awards and Feedback

Since the college launched the program, it has graduated two cohorts of diverse, successful students, and has recently welcomed the newest cohort of future data scientists in August. The Data Science Hackathon was a successful collaboration with a local healthcare analytics company in which participants competed on building a predictive model from text data, and was attended by nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate students from schools in Indiana and Illinois. The winners of the event were offered jobs at a local data analytics firm, and these connections were made during a networking portion of the hackathon.

 

Saint Mary’s graduates are working to develop data science teams at major state-wide insurance companies and employed as contractors on government funded initiatives to investigate solutions to the opioid crisis, and creating their own consulting firms to provide analytics services to governments and businesses in developing countries. One of the graduates recently won a Five Minute Student Project Presentation competition at the National Professional Science Master’s Association’s annual conference in Washington D.C. His victory helped him earn financial support for his future projects and initiatives. Achievements like these make the college proud of its graduates and the work they do!

 

Overcoming Challenges

One of the biggest challenges Kristin asserts has been the lack of standardization in the term ‘data science’ and the various educational pathways to obtain industry-ready skills in the field. “This is a challenge because individuals interested in entering the industry are not sure of the best way to prepare themselves. Educational institutions are trying to catch up to the relative novelty of the term by developing data science graduate programs, but more undergraduate programs in data science are also needed,” she added. In the early stages of the development of Saint Mary’s Data Science master’s program, an Advisory Board was established consisting of business leaders from the regional tech industry, and leaders at larger, nationally known tech companies. The faculty consulted with the Advisory Board to understand what knowledge and skills employers of data scientists are looking for, and then they developed the curriculum to meet those demands. Now that the program has launched, Saint Mary’s College continues to call regular meetings of the Advisory Board to ensure that it is still providing the graduates with the necessary knowledge and skills currently demanded by the industry.

 

Growth Drivers of the Big Data and Analytic Industry

Kristin believes that understanding consumer behavior will always be of interest in the field of data science, but another area where data science has the potential for great impact is healthcare analytics or informatics. Healthcare institutions have been and are now collecting massive amounts of data, but many of these institutions do not have the resources needed to analyze the data in order to improve the quality of care being offered. As such, helping to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the healthcare industry will be a major contributor to the growth in this area. 

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