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​A Big Move to Tackle Big Data

Gift helps UW-Stevens Point launch data analytics program

Last year Central Wisconsin employers in retail, manufacturing, health care, agriculture, insurance and software development industries identified a growing data analytics talent gap in the region. McKinsey Global Institute predicts by 2018 the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills. In addition, a shortfall is projected of 1.5 million managers and analysts with capabilities to use and analyze big data to make effective decisions.

To address these workplace needs, UW-Stevens Point has launched a new undergraduate degree program in data analytics, beginning fall 2016. The curriculum integrates the fields of business, computer science, economics, geography information systems, mathematics and statistics. It will be led by Sentry Insurance Endowed Chairs in Computational Analytics (Department of Computing and New Media Technologies) and Business Analytics (School of Business and Economics).

“Everyone talks about Big Data,” says Tim Krause, chair of the Department of Computing and New Media Technologies. “Businesses are becoming more competitive, trying to figure out how to get a leg up. But just because we have more data doesn’t mean there are uses for it.

“Is the data clean? Are the tools the right ones for the analysis? Is the answer even in there? How are we communicating back to decision makers in the business?”

In the past, Krause says, the talent set working with data was fragmented, handled by professionals with varied backgrounds, from accounting, business, finance and marketing to math and computing. All had access to data independently of each other and could analyze it and make recommendations within their organizations. But now, Krause says, “There is a lot more gray area between these disciplines, a greater need to be more interdisciplinary.”

The degree encompasses 70 credit hours, which allows students to graduate in four years. A desire to balance business and computing training drove the major’s curricular design.

“I think the combination of the two departments is part of what makes what we’re doing unique,” Krause says. “If you look at other undergraduate data analytics programs around the country, most really emphasize either computer information systems or one or more of the business-oriented disciplines – almost to the exclusion of the other.

“We’re looking at local employers who want either business or data analysts, but also recognize that even if they are working in a more traditional role, because of the size and nature of the data that analysts are working with, there is no way of doing the analysis without having a strong toolset: understanding relational databases, integrity, warehousing, mining, and a variety of other skillsets.”

A variety of area businesses, from farms to retail to online firms, reported a demand for students trained in data analytics. But it was the major gift from Sentry – the largest in the history of both the insurance giant and UW-Stevens Point – that created the two faculty positions that will drive the program. Krause relates a story of how the March announcement of the gift and program launch spurred immediate interest in the university from a high school student.

“The announcement happened on a Tuesday; we had a student here with his dad to discuss data analytics on Friday, and they were back for orientation in June,” says Krause. “Would he have been here anyway? Maybe, maybe not. But news of the endowment, the co-op (IT program launched by Sentry in downtown Stevens Point), and other activities in our department are cumulatively having a positive effect on enrollment.”

As of July, eight students had declared a data analytics major, four new students and four continuing students. All eight are enrolled in DAC 101, Introduction to Data Analytics, along with 16 other students whom Krause believes are testing the data analytics waters.

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