Nittany Data Labs prepares students to solve real-world data science problems

Members of Nittany Data Labs used facial tracking and image detection modes to find patterns in Disney movies, which they presented to Disney corporate executives last spring. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Founded in 2017 to generate excitement about data science in industry as well as supplement classes in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Nittany Data Labs (NDL) serves as the University’s data science club and is the third largest science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) student organization at Penn State. Despite being only two years old, the organization has grown to include more than 1,000 members.

NDL focuses on providing students with the foundational knowledge they need to work in the field of data sciences. President Alex Woodruff, a senior in the College of IST and one of NDL’s original members, said that the organization has been completely run by students since its founding, and that all education and knowledge learned in NDL has been passed down.

“That's one of the things that is so important for us in NDL,” Woodruff said. “If people put the time in and take the effort to understand the concepts and materials we are providing them with, they can do anything.”

And these concepts and materials are available to everyone at University Park. All Penn State students are welcome to join Nittany Data Labs, regardless of their college, major or skill level. This level of inclusivity has led students from the Smeal College of Business, the College of Arts and Architecture, and the College of Engineering to join the diverse group of close-knit students.

“We make it feel like a community while also providing valuable industry skills” Woodruff said.

In addition to helping students gain industry knowledge of data science, NDL focuses on projects with corporate partners and sponsors. Each year, members of the student organization reach out to companies with whom they’ve developed connections with seeking data science problems for members of NDL to solve. The members work on projects on a rolling basis all year round, with a presentation to corporation executives at the end of each semester. Many of these partner corporations – such as EY, Disney, Goldman Sachs, The New York Times and Lockheed Martin – recruit directly from the club for internships and employment opportunities.

This past spring, NDL members presented data solutions to EY and Disney. For EY, students were tasked with conducting an exploratory analysis of the company in various media outlets, while students on the Disney team worked on several projects -- including facial tracking of movie viewers to determine if certain areas of a frame were looked at more than others, and reducing background noise to determine if colors of characters in a frame influenced the sentiment portrayed in the movie.

NDL aims to make an impact outside of Penn State. This year, the organization is partnering with the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands to execute a virtual international hackathon, where students at both universities will be able to test their skills in a data science hacking simulation.

“To have an international hackathon between students at two totally different universities that study two totally different curricula is going to be very beneficial for all of our members,” Woodruff said.

In addition to hackathons, NDL also hosts a wide variety of events for members such as coding workshops, corporate tech talks and company networking events -- all of which are designed to provide members with the experience and networking opportunities to succeed in industry while being able to meet new people and make friends along the way.

Nittany Data Labs meets at 7 p.m. every Sunday in the Westgate Building Cybertorium.

Last Updated January 22, 2020