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Rice Data Lab Has Students Tackle Real-World Analytics

Students from Rice's D2K Learning Lab discuss a project that makes use of 3-1-1 call data from the City of Houston.

Students from Rice's D2K Learning Lab discuss a project that makes use of 3-1-1 call data from the City of Houston. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

A new laboratory experience at Rice University is giving students ample opportunities to tackle real-world problems in data science. The Houston institution's new Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge (D2K Lab) allows learners to work directly with companies, academic labs, government agencies and nonprofits. The lab was founded through a $4 million gift from Rice alumnus Kevin Harvey and his wife Catherine Harvey. It's being led by Genevera Allen, an associate professor of statistics and electrical and computer engineering at Rice University.

The lab features courses, co-curricular programs and events to link students to people with data problems. For example, in one course, students participate in the D2K "Consulting Clinic," a three-hour, once-a-week walk-in clinic designed to address "smaller-scale" problems that can be tackled in a few hours or a couple of days. The clinic, which opened in the spring, has a mix of 12 graduate and undergraduate students. Clients can just walk in or make appointments. Small teams of three or four students meet with the client to discuss the problem, and the team suggests a course of action within a few days.

The advantage of that approach, said Allen in a statement, is that it gives students exposure to "a wide range of problems and clients. No two data science problems are quite the same, and clients can also be very different in terms of their expertise and expectations." By serving in the clinic, she added, not only do students learn how to analyze and solve problems, but they also get experience in communicating their solutions to non-data experts.

Another course, the D2K "Learning Lab," offers in-depth projects defined by sponsors, which may last a semester or a full year. This class, taught by Allen, has about 50 students, including seven teams already tackling projects for clients. Eventually, she predicted, that would grow to 300 students and 100 clients each year.

The lab is also running a "lift-off" program for first-semester freshmen, data visualization and "data-thon" competitions, an industry lunch series and a distinguished lecture series.

"Data is everywhere, in seemingly endless varieties and massive quantities, but there's a critical shortage of people who are trained to turn data into actionable, useful knowledge," said Allen. "The key is to connect Rice students with people who have data challenges. Our students will not only gain invaluable experience and unique learning opportunities, they'll also make an impact by solving real-world data science problems."

Rice has invested $45 million through a data science initiative to advance the university's research reputation and impact through data sciences.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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