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“Data by the Lake” combines classroom and real-world learning

Data by the Lake

While many of their peers headed to warm climates, 16 Syracuse University students spent spring break 2015 in Chicago participating in the city’s first immersion experience. Designed by Syracuse’s School of Information Studies (iSchool), “Data by the Lake” was a semester-long data science course that included the immersion trip—in which students learned the fundamentals of data analysis and data mining, toured big-data companies, and made invaluable connections with local business professionals and alumni.

The students—chosen from nearly 100 applicants across the University—participated in the immersion as an enhanced version of IST 687: Applied Data Science. The iSchool’s first graduate-level, semester-long immersion program, Data by the Lake required students to complete real data projects for Hyatt and the City of Chicago.

“Our goal was to integrate ‘school work’ and the ‘real world.’ It’s far more interesting for students, and they learn more working on real challenges faced by actual organizations,” says Jeff Saltz, Unversity Professor of Practice at the iSchool, who designed the program with Associate Professor Robert Heckman. “As an introductory-level data science course, but with the requirement of solving a real-world problem, students had to get up to speed quickly on a range of data science topics—from understanding the client’s problem to using advanced algorithms to find patterns in the data.”

From March 9-13, 2015, the class visited the Windy City, working with Hyatt and the City of Chicago to solve data-related problems faced by both organizations. Students also spent time exploring the data challenges at other Chicago-based companies like Gogo and Spot Trading, where they were hosted by Syracuse University alumni. 

The program was partially funded through the generosity of Chicago-area alumni, led by members of the Chicago Regional Council. Additionally, the Chicago Orange Fund—established to build support for alumni programming and other SU initiatives in the Windy City—was a key resource in making the program attainable and affordable for the students.

“Data by the Lake was an invaluable, unforgettable experience—one that vastly improved my technical skills and ability to think like a data scientist” says Zach Schleien ’15, an information management graduate student.

Classmate Sharon Lee’14, G’15, also pursuing her master’s in information management, agrees. “Many of us began the course with hardly any prior exposure to data science. Although that initial lack of knowledge made this course ten times more challenging, the trip really put the meaning of data into perspective,” she says. “There’s an overwhelming amount of information collected on a daily basis, and intelligent data analysts can pull something very powerful from it—knowledge that can change how the future world will work.”

After the trip, students spent the rest of the semester working on solutions for Hyatt and the City of Chicago, presenting findings to leaders from both organizations. Based on client feedback, Data by the Lake could be considered a win-win for everyone involved.

“The work done by the students was so valuable to our Chicago-based clients that, after the final presentations, the organizations asked the students for their code so it could be used to enhance the professional analysis done to date,” Saltz says. “What better compliment could the class receive?”