Data & Decision Sciences

March 28, 2018

By teaching students to leverage statistical analysis to glean useful insights from complex, real-world datasets, a new course aims to make data competency a signature strength of every Duke Engineering undergraduate

students participate in a hands-on lab activity

In a world full of uncertainties, how can you maximize your chances of picking the best option? Students learn strategies for predicting probabilities through hands-on lab activities.

Imagine what we could do with the streams of data rushing from Fitbits, Nests, satellites, microscopy, seismic networks, mobile phones, auto dashboards, credit card purchases and just about every other source of information that’s captured, tracked and shared.

“We want our students to really dig into data science. Our goal is for each student to emerge with a solid understanding of how to leverage data to inform and guide their work as engineers.”

Stacy Tantum
Faculty member in Electrical & Computer Engineering

Stacy Tantum wants every Duke engineer to be able to envision the possibilities—and to turn them into reality.

“With all this rich data, how can we interpret it to learn new things, see unexpected patterns and make better decisions?” said Tantum, a faculty member in Electrical & Computer Engineering. “These are skills we want all of our students to have.”

Toward that end, Duke Engineering has launched a creative new course designed to give undergraduates a foundation in the
fast-growing field of data science.

Piloted in spring 2018, “Introduction to Data & Decision Sciences,” led by Tantum and Duke Mathematics faculty member Paul Bendich, is intended to become a sophomore-year staple.

With a focus on team-based, authentic problem-solving, the new data course builds on a highly successful summer program at Duke called “Data+.”

The award-winning program led by the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD) brings small groups of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty together to design data-driven solutions to interdisciplinary challenges, most provided by external clients.

The approach has proven enormously popular, and may even aid recruitment and retention of students underrepresented in the field, according to iiD director Robert Calderbank.

“Data+ had over 300 applications last year—over half from women,” he said. “In a world where women are still pursuing STEM majors at lower rates than men, that is encouraging.”

Plus, team-based labs that challenge students to solve real-world, potentially messy challenges, combined with structured teaching, give
the core concepts a kind of “stickiness” that by-the-book approaches just can’t match, said Tantum.

“We want our students to really dig into data science—to learn to define problems, determine what data they need to answer questions, explore and visualize the data using concepts from probability and statistics,” Tantum said. “Our goal is for each student to emerge with a solid understanding of how to leverage data to inform and guide their work as engineers.”

“Comfort with data will be an integral skill for engineers of the future,” added Ravi Bellamkonda, Vinik Dean of Engineering. “We see Duke as the place that will lead the way.”

Data on Data-Science Education @ Duke

1 Gold Award

Duke’s Data+ program took home gold in the 2016 Reimagine Education global competition recognizing “projects that enhance learning and employability and are both innovative and scalable”

$9.75 Million in Philanthropic Support

for the Information Initiative at Duke will endow new professorships, graduate fellowships in engineering, and educational programs on data-driven problemsolving, both in the classroom and in the field

Duke Graduate Students Have Led 43 'Data Expeditions'

in undergraduate courses—pop-up, hands-on projects on topics from analyzing international carbon dioxide emissions to applying linear algebra to autism detection in infants

30+ Partners

from industry, government and nonprofits have collaborated with the Information Initiative at Duke on research, workshops, internships and other hands-on learning for students

71 Undergraduates & 23 Graduate Students

teamed with faculty to conduct 25 real-world, data-driven research projects through Duke’s Data+ program in 2017