Working to build community among students learning remotely this fall, expert problem solvers in the data analytics program at Washington State University designed course-related games to stimulate interaction while providing some educational fun and valuable professional networking opportunities.
In collaboration with academic advisors for the WSU Pullman, Everett, Vancouver, and Global campuses, the program director and statistics professor Nairanjana “Jan” Dasgupta brought together students from across the U.S. outside of class time to play online Data Analytics Bingo and a pandemic-inspired False Positive game.
For Bingo, they used customized score cards that identified the wide variety of courses offered in the DA program.
A fast-growing field worldwide, DA is used to solve complex problems often involving large datasets. The core curriculum and multiple specialization tracks in DA at WSU help students develop technical skills and knowledge in specific application areas, along with skills in communication and teamwork.
While all the Bingo players learned about their diverse study options, the four winning students each received a unique and valuable prize: a half-hour, one-on-one conversation with a leading professional in data science.
Nathan Shine, a 22-year-old senior from Kent, Washington, played DA Bingo from his room in the Chi Alpha fraternity house at WSU Pullman and won the opportunity to talk with a high-level data analyst at a major online services company.
“I was eager to learn what a day in the life of a data scientist looks like — what projects they work on and what tools they use – and about entry-level data science/analytics positions and how to build a portfolio of projects online,” he said.
“Our conversation went really well. He shared how he got involved in data science and what tools he uses. I also got a lot of valuable insights on the interviewing processes at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, such as who makes the hiring decisions and how to approach coding questions,” Shine said.
Shine chose to major in data analytics because “I like being able to find out new things in data that is otherwise too ‘noisy’ to decipher,” he said. “I hope to find a full-time position where I can use my data analytics skills to make it easier for businesses to make decisions.”
Global Campus student and DA Bingo winner Lara Mechling, a 32-year-old junior from Knoxville, Tennessee, spoke with WSU College of Arts and Sciences dean and data mining expert Matt Jockers, whose early career spanned teaching and publishing about literature at Stanford University to software engineering at Apple.
A professor in both the DA program and the English department, Jockers provided tips and best practices for job preparation, and emphasized the importance of maintaining a sense of curiosity and openness to opportunity.
“It was really inspiring to talk to someone who has so many amazing achievements on his résumé,” Mechling said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get past that first set plan and open yourself up to exploring other possibilities.”
Meeting experienced data scientists enhances students’ classroom education, Dasgupta said. “It gives them additional perspectives, and sometimes their conversations can lead to internships and other professional opportunities.”
Mechling studies data analytics because she enjoys solving problems, she said, and she chose WSU’s DA program because “it’s so well rounded.” She has already leveraged the skills gained in her introductory DA class to help faculty at the community college where she works identify factors involved in student retention.
“It was a direct application of my knowledge, and that was really neat,” she said.
Sasi Pillay, vice president of information technology services and chief information officer at WSU, and a leading U.S. tech company executive met virtually with the other two lucky Bingo winners.
In the False Positive game – a variation on the classic children’s game, Who’s It? – students learned how to apply statistics to discover, based on facial expressions, who among them had secretly been assigned “positive” status.
The game helped illustrate how statistics is used to reduce the probability of false positives in large-scale testing, such as disease testing, Dasgupta said. It also led to a discussion of possible consequences of false positive and false negative outcomes in various real-life scenarios, including legal trials and the diagnosis and spread of COVID-19.
“The games provided lighthearted fun with a bit of learning,” Dasgupta said. “The students enjoyed them and so did I!”