UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This past fall, the Nittany Data Labs made its official debut as a student organization in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) at Penn State. But even in its brief tenure, the group is visualizing a big impact across the University.
“We’re the startup of clubs,” said Sean Parsons, a sophomore majoring in security and risk analysis and the director of finance for the organization. “We have momentum, riding the wave of data sciences.”
The organization, spearheaded by Parsons and fellow IST sophomore and Nittany Data Labs president Yuya Ong, introduces students to the dynamic world of data sciences. Beginning as an informal meet-up between friends to share knowledge about the field, it is growing to become much more.
“This isn’t fluff, this is real,” Parsons said. “Research labs, professors, companies — they need qualified people who can work in data sciences. That will be us.”
The students are pursuing the subject because the ability to analyze data sets to drive strategic decision-making is a skill that can be applied to virtually any industry.
“There’s really no context or field where data analysis isn’t relevant,” added Matt Beckman, assistant research professor of statistics in the Eberly College of Science and the faculty adviser to the club.
“But there’s a high barrier of entry to data sciences,” Parsons explained. “So that’s where our club fits in.”
Building a community
Their club grew organically out of the data sciences major, which is jointly offered between the College of IST, College of Engineering, and Eberly College of Science. In the major, students complete a set of common courses and then select one of three areas of focus, each of which is hosted by one of the three colleges.
Beckman praised the students’ initiative in creating the club, generating interest, and creating a structure to support additional learning.
“Nittany Data Labs is very much student run,” he said. “I try to make sure they have the resources they need and get out of their way.”
Not limited to students in the data sciences program, the group welcomes students from every major, as long as each member expresses a desire to learn more about the field and solve problems in different ways.
“We wanted to build that community for data sciences, bringing people together to learn,” Parsons said.
From music and artwork generated through artificial intelligence to automatic detection of fake news, the club knows that the applications of data sciences are unlimited and require a diverse set of skills.
“These things take a different approach to data sciences,” Ong said. “That’s why we want these different majors: philosophy, communications and business.”
“It sets the framework for how we think about information, knowledge and the things we see every day. We want it to be really inclusive and diverse, and not just limit it to STEM majors.”
‘We’re really going to show our capabilities’
During the fall semester, Nittany Data Labs held sessions with more than 200 students in attendance every week. The meetings introduced the fundamentals of the field, and students were given take-home online training modules to complete for the next session.
Beckman helped to connect the students with the modules, each of which typically consisted of three to four hours of work, with the goal of helping students develop a strong foundation for data sciences for both their personal and professional ambitions.
But this training only sets the stage for what’s next.
“Once we get through the fall semester, then we get into the really exciting stuff,” Parsons explained. “This spring, we are going to have teams work on capstone projects.”
These projects will range in scope and expertise, and allow the student teams to explore their personal interests by applying the foundational concepts they’ve learned in their classes and online trainings.
“My team will be training artificial intelligence to play blackjack,” Parsons said. “Another group will create a fake review detector for online businesses.”
Ong, who is enrolled in the College of IST’s applied data sciences option within the major, said, “We’re even exploring a ‘dating with data’ project, where we’re analyzing data to find the right partner. We want to build our own Tinder, but better!”
“We’re really going to show our capabilities with these projects,” he added.
For these capstone projects, Ong and Parsons say they were inspired by the College of IST’s approach to learning.
“Everything is hands-on, team-based in our club because that’s a big trait of IST,” Parsons said. “And it’s already a home to innovation.”
Regardless of the students’ majors, however, each is learning how to make use of the infinite amount of data created in the digital age.
“There’s so much momentum around data sciences right now,” Parsons said. “And with IST’s new majors [in applied data sciences and cybersecurity analytics and operations], staying on these trends in industry, this is just naturally the right home for the club.”
Added Ong, “The Data Labs really supplements what we’re learning in the classrooms. But here, we’re not tied to grades or course expectations. It’s really up to us on how to express our interests through these projects.”
‘[We’re] looking at this from an industry side instead of the classroom’
As the group grows, organizers plan to supplement the project-focused work by engaging members in networking opportunities with thought-leaders in the field. This fall, they took their first trip to San Francisco, where they met with employees from notable tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Lyft, and Uber.
At Uber, they were shown the vast amount of real-time data used to keep their platform running smoothly on a nonstop basis.
“We really felt the magnitude of how much data they’re processing,” Ong said. “You really don’t get to see that often, and it was interesting to look at this from an industry side instead of in the classroom.”
They also had the opportunity to network with employees from the firms, which they hope to leverage to identify projects and get a glimpse of life after Penn State.
“We’re hoping to do video conferences with leading experts, to really show what it’s like to work in certain fields,” Ong said.
In addition to personal networking connections, Parsons and Ong hope these interactions and the outcomes of their capstone projects raise the profile of the data sciences program at Penn State.
“We want to earn that brand recognition for the program and the University through high-level work and more opportunities for the students,” Parsons said.
Ong concluded, “We are doing this not to just demonstrate our own capabilities, but to show Penn State’s great reputation.”