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Business Observer Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016 5 years ago

Wonks among us

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Data, and how to use it properly, is a priority for many businesses. A Gulf Coast college targets this segment, with hopes for a big bang.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Executive Summary
School. New College of Florida Industry. Data research Key. School is introducing a master's program for students to study data science.

The student experience at New College of Florida in Sarasota, the state's honors college, is an idyllic throwback to learning for learning's sake.

Under the “Brilliantly Unique. Uniquely Brilliant” slogan, the school shuns majors and instead requires students to have areas of concentration. There are no letter grades or grade-point averages. Students are monitored through contracts with faculty advisers.

Yet despite the laissez-faire approach to overseeing studies, the school has an impressive list of highly structured business-focused alumni. The list includes a Federal Reserve Bank president, a former U.S. attorney and a national coffee chain CEO, in addition to several area executives and business owners.

Now New College is about to add to its business community standing, with a new program that promises to turn the academics of big data science into useful tools and applications for companies. A master's level graduate program in the subject is scheduled to begin taking students full time this fall.

“The data science program will be a cutting-edge collaboration with local partners and enterprises and nonprofits,” New College President Donal O'Shea says in an emailed statement. “It will help them, it will help our students and provide individuals with the skills that Florida and (the) national economy need.”

The New College program is one of the few nationally in big data that combines an academic side with a practical side. The academic side is in the first year, when there are eight classes, through two semesters, that are heavy in computer science.

The practical side is in year two. That's when students work on group software-based analytics projects using real data — with names and other privacy elements omitted — that will come from companies that partner with the college and other sources. Year two also includes internship opportunities for students with some local companies. “Nobody is doing what New College is doing with a program like this,” says school spokesman David Gulliver.

Lots of data
Companies partnering with the college on the program range from national to local firms, and span multiple industries. The list includes Provo, Utah-based Ancestry.com, which traces people's family histories; Sarasota-based Voalte, a mobile health firm that develops software to help caregivers communicate better and more efficiently; and Manatee County-based cloud communications firm Star2Star, one of the fastest-growing businesses in the region. Star2Star co-founder and CEO Norm Worthington is a New College alum.

Other entities that have expressed interest in partnering with New College on the data program include Bradenton-based retailer Beall's and Sarasota Memorial Hospital. All the entities share once core aspect: reams of data.

An engineer with Voalte also enrolled in the graduate program, to learn data science from that end. “I'm a big fan of what's going on at New College,” says CEO Trey Lauderdale. “It's a great program. I'd like to see more” programs like this.

New College has also begun to offer undergraduate data science classes. Enrollment for those classes, say New College officials, is on the rise, given the timeliness of the topic. “I expect we will continue to see a rapid rise in students taking those classes,” says New College math professor and data science program director Patrick McDonald.

Overcoming hurdles
The formation of a graduate program in data science at New College was a deep thought process into what the school stands for, says McDonald, going back to its elite liberal arts roots and image. It's also the first graduate program of any kind at New College, which was another hurdle it had to overcome. For those traditional reasons, some professors balked at the idea initially.

“We had to let go of a lot of preconceived notions of what makes an academic program at New College,” says McDonald. “I'm a mathematician. (But) the motivation of what I think about in mathematics isn't tied to the problems of industry.”

In putting data science to good use, industry problems, McDonald has learned, revolve around taking huge chunks of information and parsing what's relevant, what's sort of relevant and what's not important. Data scientists then take that information and help companies with everything from business models to marketing strategies to hiring.

But while the business need is clear, McDonald says he balances that with his other mission: to prepare New College students for the workforce, and a world where they compete with other people for jobs, in addition to technological progress. “I'm not looking for my students to have a job that pays $80,000 a year for a few years and then get replaced by a machine,” he says. “I want them to have a job that lasts.”

Brain power
One key to the program is the quality of the professors, so students can have both the computer skills and the soft people skills companies seek. “Students will have to be able to function as part of a team,” says McDonald.

Professors in the data science program include four new ones hired specifically for these classes. The school has assigned eight faculty members, in addition to a visiting statistics professor, to teach data science classes. The list includes:

Simant Dube, an assistant professor of statistics who has worked in the software, biotechnology and semiconductor industries. His expertise includes working on image recognition and data analysis projects;

David Gilman, who joined the faculty in 2013 after working for several prominent software and Internet networking firms, including Akamai Technologies, a $2 billion publicly traded company. Gilman holds a doctorate in mathematics from MIT, as does McDonald, who recruited him to New College;

Gary Kalmanovich, a financial analyst who comes to the program after working with giant companies that use large collections of data. Past stops in Kalmanovich's career include health insurance firm Cigna, Allstate and Goldman Sachs. At Goldman Kalmanovich helped develop a proprietary algorithm trading system;

Matthew Lepinski, who has a specialty in cyber security. Lepinski, who has sat on task forces that created technical standards for the Internet, previously worked at BBN Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based high tech research firm.

McDonald, who toured a few other colleges with data science programs to prepare for New College's program, says more professors could be added if and when the program expands. “The big push here is to have a fully integrated program that goes across the curriculum,” says McDonald. “That will provide our students a differential edge when they look for a job.”

At a glance: New College
Year founded: 1960

President: Donal O'Shea

Budget: $32.9 million; education and general budget is $19.9 million, which includes tuition, fees and funds from state

2014 Enrollment: 834 students

Full-time faculty: 73

Average high school GPA of incoming freshman: 4.0

Source: New College of Florida

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