Winning Variables

KENNESAW, Ga. | Feb 4, 2019

Graduate students tackle industry’s data science problems

When Jennifer Priestley, director of KSU’s Analytics and Data Science Institute, meets with industry leaders about creating academic-industry research partnerships, she often hears the same concerns – their companies need help with critical data and analytics problems that impact the decision-making process and ultimately, the customer experience.

In response, Priestley and the Institute team developed a strategy that remedies the immediate demand for solutions and capitalizes on the academic scope of multiple disciplines by partnering Kennesaw State students and companies with data-related problems.

One component of that strategy – an applied analytics projects course – invites graduate students to tackle some of the toughest data challenges. Students taking the hands-on course combine their backgrounds in business, computer science, information systems and statistics and function in interdisciplinary teams of three or four.

Jennifer Priestley

“Our students bring tremendous knowledge from their individual disciplines which is important in how they approach a data science problem,” Priestley said. “The interdisciplinary teams view the same problem through a different lens, and they often learn more from each other during the experience.”

At the start of the semester, representatives from the companies who sponsor the graduate-level course present their business problems and associated data to the KSU teams.

“The goal is to complete the projects within a semester, so it is important to use semi-defined but real business problems,” Priestley said. “This is more than a capstone course and really pushes the boundaries in the data analytics research space for our students.”

The experience offers students face-to-face interactions with C-Suite executives at companies like Spanx, Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific, Cox Communications and Perceivant. This semester, the five teams will work with two companies each, completing one project for each company.

“I am most excited about gaining experience with real data sets from real companies,” said Engrid Smith, an information technology student. “These are really challenging problems.”

Project Launch

To kick off the spring course, Priestley tapped KSU alumnus Murray Webb, who earned his business degree from KSU in 2010 and a master’s degree in applied statistics in 2012, to teach fundamental data science concepts during one of the first class sessions.

“Some clients may not know exactly what they are looking for, but this is what you will go through with any real project,” said Webb, a data scientist with Healthgrades, a website with information on physicians, hospitals and healthcare providers. “Deliver something that is reasonable and that has value.”

Data Science class

Last semester, Atlanta-based clothing retailer Spanx reached out to the Institute for help in improving the overall customer experience. KSU students used anonymized customer and sales records to address the company’s data-centric challenges.

“It’s important to listen carefully to what your customer is asking for, and present the final project in a manner that makes sense to the company and their goals,” said Maria Chung, an MBA student who took the course in the fall.

Susan Keegan, director of business intelligence with Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Company, is excited about working with Kennesaw State students this semester. She said that her company has been using the same supply chain processes for 20 years and wanted to investigate possible alternatives.

“It will give us a fresh perspective to the problem we have,” said Keegan. “Our employees have tried to solve a long-term problem, and it’s difficult to ignore previous barriers, but students come into the project without any preconceived notions.”

Besides understanding the project’s complexity, students also find that team dynamics within an interdisciplinary group can be challenging.

“For me, it’s figuring out what everyone is good at and then blending our talents and knowledge together to benefit the team,” said Chaim Bernstein, an MBA and information systems graduate student.

With so many variables within their teams and the project itself, students must also spend time learning data science to better understand how to master and manipulate the data.

“The hardest part is getting everyone on the same page and breaking down the data to get what we need out of it,” said Kelly Linz, an applied statistics student and team leader. “We are still figuring out where each of us can thrive within the project so that we can bring something to the table that none of the other groups can.”

Talent Pipeline

The Institute, housed in the Graduate College, launched the course last year as an answer to industry’s need for deep analytical talent.

“Our mission is to train the next generation of data scientists,” Priestley said. “This course offers graduate students a leg up when they enter the workforce and allows them to engage in data science projects in a risk-free way.”

Data science class

Priestley also said many of these companies looked to KSU to improve their talent pipeline.

As students learn data science by working directly for companies that need assistance, they are building their knowledge base, creating new relationships with industry leaders and are better prepared to take on those challenges in the workforce.

By operating as interdisciplinary teams, Priestley said it also spurs a competitive spirit among students. While their final goal may be to earn their client’s support, winning a cash prize is definitely a motivator for some students in the course. Last semester, MBA student Maria Chung and her teammates Jaclyn Kroll, Julie Harris and Jeffrey Van Slooten split a $1,500 prize from Spanx.

“Everything that we do within the Institute, and this class, is focused on data-centric problems,” said Priestley. “All of the applied data science research, the partnerships and thought leadership are all part of our mission in working with companies to solve problems.”

– Tiffany Capuano

Photos by David Caselli

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit