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Data Analytics for Good - Purdue competition lets students tackle real-word business case


Purdue University’s Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business recently hosted a national case competition on the West Lafayette campus that challenged students to develop a plan for using natural language processing to do image captioning. The event was co-sponsored by SIL International, Microsoft, and the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS).  

“Part of my job is making sure our students are involved in analytics and data science competitions,” says Professor Matthew Lanham, academic director for the master’s program in Business Analytics and Information Management (MSBAIM) and associate director for student engagements in the school’s Krenicki Center for Business Analytics and Machine Learning.

“Over the last seven years, our students have won or placed in many of these national competitions,” he says. “Since we've got a well-established brand and name, we decided to create our own national data analytics competition that’s focused on something for good and not necessarily on trying to make money.”

Lanham says industry partners can help academic programs stay focused on key knowledge, skills, and abilities graduates need to be successful. “These projects allow partners to evaluate the students in a low-stakes internship-like environment that is mutually beneficial to both,” he says. “If a student doesn’t have the right fit, they still have a great experience to showcase to other employers, and the partner gets some value from the work performed.”

Dubbed “Data Analytics for Good,” the case challenge was provided by SIL International, a nonprofit organization that partners with communities worldwide to develop language solutions to expand their possibilities for a better life. Overall, 172 teams from across the nation applied and registered for the competition. Ultimately, 36 universities were represented, including two from outside the United States.

“Getting analytics and data science students involved in experiential learning projects with companies and participating in case competitions or hackathons are key,” Lanham says. “The primary reasoning is to ensure our students practice their skills outside the classroom curriculum and hopefully add another experience they can potentially showcase to employers.”

Importantly, the students also used the INFORMS Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) job task analysis rubric in assessing the case.  “Students often want to jump right into the technical work, but one of the greatest lessons learned is having them step back and see how important it is in practice to follow a structured process to deliver a solution that satisfies the business need,” Lanham says.

“I have consistently been impressed with Purdue’s approach to ensuring students in the MSBAIM program are learning job-ready skills and have access to real world data and hands-on project experiences,” says Lynn Letukas, director of higher education strategy, enablement and operations for Microsoft. “The Data Analytics for Good Case Competition is just one example of the many high-quality offerings and initiatives available to students in Purdue’s business school.”

Participating students also took part in a Microsoft bootcamp offered by the software company’s expert trainers, accessed certification prep materials, got a free practice exam, and received a voucher to take its AI Fundamentals and Azure Fundamentals exams at no cost.

“There is a growing demand for early career talent with analytical and technical expertise across industries,” Letukas says. “The MSBAIM program prepares students to help meet these business needs and make an impact early on in their careers — through not only exposing students to a breadth of analytics techniques and relevant technology, but also preparing them to take complex information and communicate findings to a general audience.

“This is why we continue to support activities such as the Data for Good Case Competition. We know that events like this help students hone key skills that are crucial for success in their careers — the opportunity to collaborate with peers and work as a team, the need to simplify and present complex data to an audience that does not have a technical background, and the ability to think critically about how to address an important problem.”