Monday, January 4, 2016

Last semester, the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences began offering a certificate in Large Data Analysis and Visualization to undergraduate students with support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Big Data curriculum grant. The multidisciplinary certificate extends training to undergraduate students that was previously available only to graduate students.

Computer science professor Suely Oliveira, who helped start the certificate program with faculty from Mathematics and Statistics and serves as the academic coordinator, said the applications for large data analysis are huge, and the skills learned through the certificate program will be of extreme strategic value to students after graduation.

“Employers are searching for people who have these skills,” Oliveira said. “The amount of data that is available is very large, and it’s growing every day in diverse fields of application.”

Since computers have become faster and smaller, with smart devices that are portable, wearable, and used across every field, the amount of information constantly being gathered has exploded. Large data analysis uses algorithms to process data, statistics to determine what can be legitimately inferred from the data, and mathematics to help connect these things.

The 21 credit hours required for the certificate include classes on computing, statistics, and mathematics, providing a breadth of knowledge students would unlikely get from their major alone.

So far, 23 students have declared the certificate, but Oliveira said she knows of about 30 others who have expressed interest. The certificate includes three levels of classes. The first focuses mostly on statistics, the second level adds more courses on numerical analysis, and the third level finishes with a capstone project allowing students to apply their knowledge to a specific area in which they’re interested.

These projects may draw from a variety of fields, such as genetics, social media, recommendation services, terrain and weather mapping, finances, and healthcare.

“The capstone class helps the students interact with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines, find the applications they are interested in, and start working with them,” Oliveira said.

Along with other faculty in the grant, Oliveira also organized a successful Large Data Analysis summer school for incoming freshmen in June 2015, and another one is scheduled for 2016. Around 20 incoming freshmen attended five days of classes exploring programming, data analysis, conditional probability, and large data.

In the future, Oliveira would like to expand the summer school to high school students as a way of introducing younger students to the concepts of computing and attracting them to the University of Iowa.