CMDA students tackle real-world problems through capstone course
For several years, health care company Anthem Inc. has turned to seniors in Virginia Tech’s computational modeling and data analytics program (CMDA) – through its capstone course – to generate answers for some of the biggest issues plaguing the world today.
Most recently, Anthem sponsored a project investigating how vaccination rates and attitudes about vaccinations are affecting infection rates of COVID-19 and hospitalizations in the Commonwealth of Virginia. According to Dale Wood, staff vice president for strategy and analytics at Anthem, the company plans to use the project completed by its student team as a baseline for a nationwide study.
“It’s amazing what these students can do with taking data and turning it into information,” said Wood. “They’re building a story around it. It’s very valuable to us to understand the new techniques the students are learning through the program and applying it back into the business world.”
CMDA, nested within the Academy of Data Science in the College of Science, combines skills in mathematics, statistics, and computer science to teach techniques at the forefront of computational problem solving. The curriculum design team believed a capstone experience, long a staple of engineering majors, should be an essential aspect of data science education, and the CMDA capstone was first offered in 2016.
An intensive, semester-long course that pairs students with industry partners to tackle real problems, the capstone features teams of three or four students who spend the duration of the course working on an open-ended, client-driven project.
In addition to the technical aspects of the project, students are mentored in teamwork, project management, professional conduct, and technical leadership. Within their projects, they also consider the ethical aspects of data science and mathematical modeling.
Anthem has been a long-time sponsor of the CMDA capstone projects, with several former CMDA students going on to earn internships or even roles as full-time associates at Anthem.
“We started with the program probably the first or second year the CMDA program was around, and the quality and the number of students have grown exponentially every year,” said Wood. “The students are getting better at understanding the techniques of data science, statistics, and application to business, and they’re well-prepared for being consultants in the world and working in the business world.”
Previously offered in the fall semester only, the first CMDA capstone course featured just eight projects and fewer than 30 students. Since then, the growth of the program has been tremendous, necessitating the addition of a spring capstone offering in 2021. This year, 50 projects were completed by 170 students; the spring semester featured 63 of those students working on 18 projects.
“It's been terrifically rewarding [to see the growth of the capstone],” said Fred Faltin, associate professor of practice of statistics and capstone program co-director. “Every year as our program grows, we want to maintain the quality of the capstone experience – we want to keep the teams at three or four students. But when we have more students, we need more sponsors. And our sponsors have been terrifically responsive, both within Virginia Tech and externally.”
The partners who sponsor the capstone projects come from business, government and the Virginia Tech community. Sponsors for the spring projects, which were presented May 9-11, ranged from multinational companies such as Colgate-Palmolive to small nonprofit organizations such as Black BRAND and from Virginia Energy to Virginia Tech Athletics.
According to Angie Patterson, professor of practice of statistics and capstone program co-director, “The richness of projects and breadth of sponsors is super impressive and is the key to capstone’s success in providing experiential learning in an interdisciplinary environment.”
Patterson knows the benefits that outside sponsors can reap from working with the program. Her relationship with CMDA started in 2018, when she began recruiting interns, sponsoring projects, and mentoring teams as a technical leader at GE Aviation. The growth of the program – including the capstone – led to an opportunity for Patterson to join the faculty, enabling her to increase her connections with “such talented and driven students.”
“I think a lot of sponsors for these capstones are really enthusiastic to work with students,” said Rajiv Patel, a member of the capstone team named Full Sprint Footprint. “That’s awesome for us because we really don’t get too many opportunities to work with real data and real projects.”
Some of the most recent capstone projects covered topics such as communications channel capacity estimation, creating an energy management dashboard, automating the identification of duplicates in a company’s database, and even mapping the probability of falls during NASA moonwalks.
Patel’s project had an interesting premise – along with his team, he worked to create training images of crime scene shoe print images for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Not only did he gain valuable technical skills – such as learning to work with image processing tools in the programming language Python – but he also discovered how to deal with bumps in the road.
“Our sponsor definitely helped us look at stuff that we don’t necessarily learn in the classroom,” Patel said. “Often, you’re not going to find a solution that’s perfect, like we do in the classroom. At first, we thought the answer was a perfect solution, but in reality, the answer is what fits the purpose of the client.”
Ultimately, the learning experiences offered in the CMDA capstone – and the CMDA program as a whole – help students develop a well-rounded set of skills that ensure they are workforce-ready upon graduation.
“CMDA has been a huge opportunity for me to learn and develop my skills as a critical thinker,” said Emily Mahr, a member of the Shiny Sankofas, who worked with Black BRAND. “Beyond just programming skills and statistical or mathematical skills, it improved my ability to reason and to think critically about the problems that surround us and how we can actually study those.”
Added Patterson: “It is exciting to see the job and graduate school opportunities available to CMDA students and rewarding to hear from our alumni. Their future is bright – and so is that of CMDA and the capstone program.”