What do farmers and pharmacists have in common? Data science

Mark Daniel Ward (first row, far left) and students from The Data Mine visit Cummins in Columbus, Ind., on March 4. Fifteen students currently are working on a data science project with Cummins. (Matthew Kerkhoff/Purdue University)

The built-in GPS and sensors that allow you to check real-time tire pressure and oil life in your car. The smart technologies in your home, giving you the ability to talk into your television remote or tell a lamp “off” or “on.”

Think of the advances over the past decade. Think of the next decade – what your car will be able to do even in five years. 

None of it is possible without the emerging and very rapidly evolving field of data science. It’s a field where Purdue University is proving a national leader with a living and learning community devoted to data science, and the opportunity for every student who leaves the university with at least one course in the field.

“There are so many different projects in today’s business world that are data-driven, oftentimes with multidisciplinary components,” said Mark Daniel Ward, a professor of statistics. “Data science studies prepare students for this with skills and insight not previously required in the workforce.”  

Data science explains the meaning behind numbers, data and algorithms. As the world is flooded with data from personal devices, sensors and the internet, data scientists are needed to make sense of the information to solve problems, save lives, develop innovation and inform policy.

Purdue’s Integrative Data Science Initiative has research and education components that impact nearly every aspect of the university.  One of these education programs is The Data Mine learning community.  Students from any major in any year have an opportunity to participate.  The Data Mine’s aim is to help students get a leg up in today’s data-driven business world.

The skills that students learn can help prepare them for almost any career in industry. For example, the program recently partnered with Ford Motor Co. to assess data for a language processing system that in the future will let drivers ask a virtual assistant in their car questions rather than leafing through a manual.

Purdue is building a $40 million facility to support this exploding area of study.

Ward is the director of The Data Mine learning community. He said data science has evolved to fall across a breadth of areas. He has studied data science for more than a decade at Purdue.

The Data Mine groups students together, living and learning in a community that revolves around a particular topic.

“In The Data Mine, they learn and gain insights to develop a passion for that discipline,” Ward said. “Students really enjoy it, and it’s an opportunity for them to work with data and in teams and have some expertise about a topic.”

A video highlighting data science at Purdue is available online.

More than 600 students enrolled in 2019-20 in The Data Mine and lived together in Hillenbrand Hall on Purdue’s campus. The learning community has research topics from agriculture and biology to philosophy and psychology. The program also is adapting to educate and support students during COVID-19 as part of the Protect Purdue plan.

Purdue’s Data Mine also features a foray into the business world with undergraduates taking on data projects for big-name corporate partners including John Deere, Ford and Sandia National Laboratories. A partnership with Microsoft is coming in the fall.

Maggie Betz, corporate partners senior manager for The Data Mine, said engine manufacturer Cummins already has seen a return on its investment after only one year. This summer, 15 students are working on a Cummins project.

“You really can find the data sciences in every field,” she said. “You can take your skills in data and put them to work almost anywhere.”

Students in The Data Mine are working with Merck to collect data from Fitbits and Apple Watches to support clinical trials by collecting more specific data about characteristics such as heart rates or sleeping.

“Every company we talk to has whole data lakes – repositories full of data that are of value to the companies,” Ward said. “There are insights in the data, predictions and models, and frequently our undergraduates have the ability to contribute value for a company or research partnership with a faculty member.

“Our students have the time, the interest and the domain knowledge and they want to make an impact.”

Ward compares The Data Mine to communal living, with students learning and developing and supporting each other, oftentimes wrestling with the data and analysis details while sitting in groups in the Hillenbrand Hall dining court. It’s a break, he says, from the standard approach of lectures in a classroom.

“The students work on projects and they take real ownership of the material,” Ward said. “They’re a lot more engaged and excited about it and they certainly dive into it more quickly and at a quicker pace as they work through the nuances of the analysis.”

Two years ago, The Data Mine was introduced to only around 100 students. Already, plans are underway to significantly expand student enrollment in the future..

Data science continues to grow in critical importance almost as quickly as the multitude of electronic devices that feed information to the consumer. The Data Mine initiative, part of the overall data science research at Purdue, is creating new frontiers.

“When we look ahead, I expect all students to be studying some kind of data science,” Ward said. “Every student knows some basics about computers but, moreover, is going to need to know how to do data analysis and how data makes an impact on what’s going on in their major.”

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a top public research institution developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges. Ranked the No. 6 Most Innovative University in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, Purdue delivers world-changing research and out-of-this-world discovery. Committed to hands-on and online, real-world learning, Purdue offers a transformative education to all. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue has frozen tuition and most fees at 2012-13 levels, enabling more students than ever to graduate debt-free. See how Purdue never stops in the persistent pursuit of the next giant leap at purdue.edu.

Writer: Brian Huchel, bhuchel@purdue.edu. Working remotely but will provide immediate response.