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data analytics

Southern students are bringing their expertise in the rapidly growing field of data analytics to area agencies looking to use “big data” to help grow their companies.

Eight students are serving internships in a variety of fields – a local law firm, the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Water Authority and SCSU’s own Office of Assessment and Planning.

Michael Ben-Avie, director of assessment and planning, said the experiences are a win-win-win for the students, the agencies and IBM. “We’ve taken a leadership position in being the first university to use IBM Watson Analytics to analyze trends,” Ben-Avie said. “And that partnership has really taken off.”

He pointed out that the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce wants to expand its membership. “Our students are conducting an analysis of the industries that the chamber has not yet penetrated to a significant level, and which have the potential to be growth areas,” he said. “That information could help the chamber accomplish its goal.”

Data analytics is a growing field used increasingly by businesses and other organizations. The experience gained by the students through the partnership with IBM and area agencies will help them considerably in attaining jobs in a field that has become increasingly lucrative over the last few years. It helps find trends and behavioral patterns that might not be readily apparent by conventional analytical methods.

IBM Watson Analytics does not require a person to know computer programming or coding, according to Ben-Avie, which makes its use accessible to a greater number of people. This kind of data also enables organizations to do micro-targeting in a somewhat similar manner as political operatives can micro-target voters.

At Southern, Ben-Avie said the information already has helped the university uncover enrollment and statistical trends. For example, the question often comes up of as to whether Southern has a high percentage of first-generation college students. He said the answer depends upon how you define “first-generation college student.”

Based on the definition used by the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement, a first-generation college student is someone who does not have a parent or guardian who graduated with a four-year degree. In that case, Ben-Avie said 63 percent of Southern’s students would be classified as first-generation college students.

But he said using a different definition – one that focuses on the psychological component of whether a student has someone at home (including a sibling) who experienced college – the results are significantly different. In that instance, only 21 percent of Southern students would be considered first generation. “They often don’t have the same challenges as a student who has nobody at home who experienced college,” Ben-Avie said.

He said data analytics has enabled the university to ascertain the nuances on this subject and other trends. In turn, that data can be valuable for marketing, recruitment, retention and other purposes.

The partnership between Southern and IBM began about a year ago. Last summer, IBM organized a boot camp for students interested in learning about data analytics and the IBM Watson Analytics program.

Ben-Avie and an IBM representative teamed up to organize an international webinar earlier this month that examined Southern’s use of data analytics.

The university plans to continue the internship program next year, and applications are already being accepted for the fall semester. Those interested in the program are asked to contact Ben-Avie at benaviem1@southernct.edu or at (203) 392-5093.

Students and faculty participate in a two-day boot camp on data analytics offered by IBM.

IBM and Southern recently teamed up to offer a “boot camp” for about 70 university students and faculty members in the use of IBM Watson Analytics – a cutting-edge, cloud-based service designed to simplify and enhance data analysis.

The participants engaged in a two-day program, which focused on how to analyze “big data,” as well as understanding analytic software and offering a taste of what it is like to work as a data scientist. The program was offered for free by IBM, according to Michael Ben-Avie, SCSU’s director of the Office of Assessment and Planning and coordinator of the boot camp.

“We thank IBM for its willingness to offer this program at no cost to our students,” Ben-Avie said. “This was a great opportunity for Southern.” He added that students also received free five-year licenses for Watson Analytics.

The program came about as a result of a budding relationship between the university and the technology giant. While the software has been used for a variety of purposes, including by faculty as a classroom tool, Ben-Avie said Southern’s use of it marked the first time a university has used it at the institutional level to discover trends and important predictors of student success.

Ben-Avie analyzed SCSU assessment data using IBM Watson Analytics. The data included statistics — such as SAT scores, class rank, retention rates and graduation rates – as well as the results from the Southern Experience Survey. Watson’s cognitive analytics helped the university to see the “difference that makes a difference” when it comes to student retention and achievement, according to Ben-Avie. “SAT scores were weak predictors,” he said. “Instead, a sense of belonging and the quality of the relationships that students formed with faculty and staff were far stronger predictors.”

IBM began showcasing SCSU as an example of how the data can be used successfully for university-wide purposes.

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“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who is as passionate about student success as Michael,” said Randy Messina, an IBM representative.

Messina noted that IBM agreed to offer the boot camp because of its ability to help not only SCSU, but the state. “We know that about 80 percent of Southern graduates live and work in Connecticut after graduation, and that’s important,” Messina said. “We are more than happy to invest in Southern.”

Those who successfully completed the two-day program earned an IBM Certificate of Achievement that will provide students with an edge when applying for jobs or graduate school, Ben-Avie said.

Data analytics is a growing field used increasingly by businesses and other organizations.