To provide companies with the talent they’ll need to make sense of their data, the
Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia
has significantly expanded the teaching of analytics in its undergraduate core
curriculum. This expansion includes required statistics courses at the freshman
and sophomore levels, as well as a business analytics concentration. In the
spring of 2018, the school also piloted the teaching of R, a widely used opensource
computer language, instead of Excel to analyze data in its core statistics
courses. R training now has become a mandatory part of the curriculum.
Starting in 2018, all 5,200 of its undergraduates must complete capstone
projects using R to analyze real-world business data in the school’s just-opened
Data Lab. Students have opportunities to work with popular tools such as SQL to
learn database management and Power BI to visualize and report data. Tableau,
another powerful data visualization tool, is being taught at the graduate level.
The objective is not necessarily to train students to become data scientists,
but to equip them with the tools to understand how to draw accurate conclusions
from the data, says Peter Brews, the Moore School’s dean. “We have to train our
students to analyze that data and move it from data into knowledge that leads to
better decision making.”
FROM STATISTICS TO CODING
Students are first exposed to R in their
sophomore statistics class. They still
learn to use Excel—however, they use R
to clean up imperfect data with missing
values and errors, manipulate and
analyze data, and create customizable
graphical displays not possible in Excel.
Most of the school’s 1,400 sophomores
have never worked with computer code
before, and they might not have
expected analytics would be
part of their business educations,
says Leslie Hendrix,
the assistant professor
who is coordinating the
statistics course. Students
who are more familiar with
menu-driven software are often
intimidated by R’s code-writing
interface. To ease their way, the school
has created video tutorials and other
tools and makes those resources available
across all course sections.
It’s important that students learn to use these resources to troubleshoot code and overcome error messages for themselves.
It’s important that students learn
to use these resources to troubleshoot
code and overcome error messages for
themselves, says Hendrix. “I often tell
them, ‘You can’t just watch me to do
this. Can you learn to swim by watching
someone else swim?’” Once students
establish baseline abilities with R, she
adds, they don’t just have “a heavy-hitter
skill” to put on their résumés. They also
have developed an aptitude to learn new
computer languages throughout the rest
of their coursework and careers.
To help faculty keep their skills upto-
date, the school provides them with
the same online training resources it
offers students, as well as the Data Lab,
internal workshops, and external professional
COMPETITION IN THE DATA LAB
Students put their skills in R to work in
the Data Lab for the final project of their
sophomore statistics class. Their challenge
is twofold. First, they must clean up
an imperfect and incomplete real-world
data set; second, they must use that data
to create a predictive model that holds true when applied to another portion of
the data set that has been withheld.
During the project’s first run, student
teams used tools of their own choosing
to analyze data involving local real
estate prices to predict actual sale prices
of homes. Students who used R fared
much better in the challenge than those
who used Excel, says Hendrix. In addition,
students were encouraged to use
resources outside of the class to
teach themselves new skills.
As the project progressed,
each team’s predictions
were posted and ranked
online, with the leaderboard
constantly updated as teams
submitted their answers.
“Students said that they became
obsessed with it,” says Hendrix.
Patrick Nealon, who was part of the
pilot class, believes he landed a commercial
real estate internship as a result of
his knowledge of the language. “Knowing
how to use R was one of the main reasons
I got the internship. It is so refreshing to
learn something that I will be able to use
outside of the classroom.”
MOST POPULAR CONCENTRATION
After they complete both statistics
courses, students will continue to study
analytics for the remainder of their undergraduate
careers. Faculty are currently
adjusting syllabi for upper-level courses
to include opportunities for students
to use their skills in R in other ways.
Undergraduates who wish to delve
into analytics more deeply can complete
the school’s new business analytics concentration
by taking four classes beyond
the required core courses. These include
an additional class in data analytics
that covers database management, SQL
programming, and data visualization;
and three electives that focus on analytics
in particular fields. Every major
at the school—including accounting,
finance, economics, management, and
marketing—has at least one elective that
applies to the concentration.
Since the analytics concentration
was introduced in 2015, it has become
more popular among undergraduates
than any other undergraduate concentration
or minor at the Moore School. In
just one year, enrollment in the concentration
has increased from 100 to around
310 in the fall of 2018.
By the fall of 2019, it’s possible that
number will increase to 500, says Brews.
He adds, “I’m hoping eventually every
Moore School student chooses to do the
THE VALUE OF ANALYTICS
In delivering its curriculum, the school
works closely with its corporate partners,
which are quickly becoming regular
customers of its students’ skills. These
include Nephron Pharmaceuticals, based
in Columbia, which is using data analytics
to examine every aspect of its operations,
from manufacturing to marketing.
The company wants to better evaluate
its performance, find greater efficiencies,
determine what processes are creating
production bottlenecks, and identify
which sales efforts are bearing the most
fruit, says its CEO Lou Kennedy.
Recently, Nephron assigned a Moore
School alumnus to analyze its contracts
to ensure that its outgoing payments
matched contract requirements. The
graduate identified mistakes and overpayments—
including one error that
would have cost the company US$85,000.
In total, the graduate saved the company
$850,000 in just one year.
Kennedy now participates in the
Moore School’s career fair days every
year, even when her company does not
have immediate openings. The event,
she says, is an opportunity to discover
how students might apply their analytics
skills to help the company in ways she
has not anticipated.
“It’s a data-driven world we live in,”
says Kennedy. “I recognize the value of
these degrees, and I like what I see.”
Mike Fitts is a freelance writer based in
Columbia, South Carolina.
This article originally appeared in BizEd's January/February 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].