St. Olaf College | News

Practicum challenges students to confront real-world problems with data-driven solutions

Portrait of (left to right) Leah Andrews, Cuong Quoc Nguyen, Rose Peterson, Kalley Johnson, and Quinton Neville in front of a television screen with their MSCS Practicum presentation.
St. Olaf students (from left to right) Leah Andrews ’19, Cuong Quoc Nguyen ’19, Rose Peterson ’18, Kalley Johnson ’18, and Quinton Neville ’18 present the findings of their Practicum project at Professional Data Analysts, Inc. in January 2018.

Before her senior year at St. Olaf, Lisa Fisher ’20 had completed several research projects on campus. A biology major with concentrations in statistics and data science and environmental studies, Fisher had applied her knowledge from the classroom through research with the Center for Interdisciplinary Research, the Biology Department, and the Nursing Department. These projects allowed her to apply her studies in biology — but she also wanted to find a way to use her quantitative skills to solve real-world problems. 

For her last Interim class, Fisher decided to enroll in the practicum course offered by the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science (MSCS). Held every other January, the practicum allows junior and senior MSCS students to work on consulting projects for external clients, which range from large for-profit companies to government agencies to small nonprofit organizations. 

In January 2020, Fisher was part of a team that researched the United States’ current liver transplant allocation system and proposed possible reforms. The team worked with data provided by the Chronic Disease Research Group (CDRG) and the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), both based in Minneapolis, to remove geographic constraints from the United States’ current liver allocation system. Throughout the month, Fisher and her teammates read literature to understand the current system and its issues, proposed changes, developed a simulation to test functions, and then evaluated their results. 

“The practicum provided me with valuable experience working with real data and applying the skills I had learned from courses at St. Olaf. Using statistics and data science for the project offered a direct way to use my skills to produce something that was meaningful,” Fisher says.

The practicum provided me with valuable experience working with real data and applying the skills I had learned from courses at St. Olaf. Using statistics and data science for the project offered a direct way to use my skills to produce something that was meaningful.Lisa Fisher ’20

The creation of new models for liver allocation procedures is just one of the projects that students have completed over the years through the MSCS practicum. Often working in groups of five, students in the practicum have served over 100 clients since the 1980s, including Delta Airlines, the Minnesota Department of Health, the City of Northfield, and Medtronic Corporation.

Prior to the beginning of Interim, two faculty members develop the projects in collaboration with the clients, and then direct the course in January. But while the faculty provide support to students throughout the month, the students complete all the work on their own. After attending a site visit to the client at the beginning of the course, students work together on developing algorithmic and computational tools to solve the problem. At the end of the month, they then provide a written report and a final on-site presentation to the client and faculty.

“Initially, the practicum was the portal for math and quantitative students to actually have an opportunity to answer the question: ‘What would you do with a math major if you weren’t just studying abstract algebra or weren’t going to become a college professor?’” says Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Matthew Richey, who co-led the 2020 practicum. “It was always intended to frame up what you’re doing as a math major with what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. And it’s worked extremely well.”

As students and employers alike gain a greater awareness of the value of quantitative thinking, the Practicum has achieved even more relevance and importance within the MSCS department. Data is no longer just a tool for scientists, but for organizations that are trying to solve problems in the real world. As a result, the practicum has undergone a shift in the last decade to be more data-intensive. 

“Companies and organizations have a ton of data, so one of the big challenges for students is getting used to working with uncurated data,” Richey says. “Students learn early on how important it is to be able to work with that sort of flow of information, to tease out of it what’s relevant and what’s not. They get an even deeper feel for how the modern world operates in terms of modeling and quantitative thinking.”

Students learn early on how important it is to be able to work with that sort of flow of information, to tease out of it what’s relevant and what’s not. They get an even deeper feel for how the modern world operates in terms of modeling and quantitative thinking.Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Matthew Richey

This shift has aligned with the department’s overall response to data’s increasingly expanded role. “Over time, the department went from being the Math Department to the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science. We now take a much more integrated view of what it means to be a properly educated, properly prepared, mathematically-thinking person, and the role of data and computing and applications has become much larger,” Richey says. “The practicum inspired a broader view of what it means to educate a student in the mathematical sciences.” 

The practicum has been instrumental in informing students’ career paths. Over half of the students who have completed the Practicum have gone on to pursue a career in which they apply their quantitative skills, while the majority of the other students attend graduate school in a related field. But the experience doesn’t just help students discern their path — it also helps them make it a reality. 

“The practicum is something that has always worked well on a resume. It’s also great for the classic interview question: ‘Tell us about a situation in which you had to work with a client on a problem involving data.’ Students don’t have to think about it,” Richey says. “They can just start talking about the practicum experience.” 

Portrait of (left to right) Michael Daly, Jack Wolf, Lisa Fisher, Martha Barnard, and Victoria Knutson wearing climbing gear in front of a climbing wall.
Practicum group members (from left to right) Michael Daly ’21, Jack Wolf ’20, Lisa Fisher ’20, Martha Barnard ’21, and Victoria Knutson ’20 enjoy some group bonding time at the Tostrud climbing wall outside of their work hours for their project in January 2020.

For Fisher, the Practicum gave her insight into how she could apply her quantitative knowledge beyond the Hill. 

“I feel that this project has given me much more confidence to pursue careers in data-driven fields. The process of starting with a large dataset that we knew very little about and becoming fluent in the many aspects of the project was very rewarding and proved that the interdisciplinary nature of St. Olaf sets students up for success,” Fisher says. “I would like to continue using what I have learned with the MSCS department to find more ways to make a difference with my statistics and data science background.” 

Though the course’s short duration proved challenging, Fisher’s team adapted to the fast-paced schedule. 

“Our team was a very close group and we understood each other well. We bonded over the challenges of the project and continued to push each other to produce our best work in the end,” Fisher says. “I am very thankful for both the group and the professors who helped us create the final product.”

At the end of the month, the team presented their proposed changes to the liver allocation system, which were well-received by the CDRG and HCMC. In the future, the group’s findings could help eliminate geographical barriers that patients face when trying to get a liver transplant.

Fisher benefited from being able to use her statistical skills on a project focused on biology and human health, and from its inception, the Practicum hasn’t shied away from St. Olaf’s liberal arts approach. By allowing students to work directly with clients on real problems, the course helps students gain a sense of the nuances and interdisciplinary work that are required to make change. At this moment in time, being able to apply data within its appropriate context is extremely important. 

“Policing questions, COVID-19 questions, and systemic racism questions all have a data aspect to them, and if you ignore it, you ignore it at your own peril. Having people who are comfortable moving between these different domains of thinking, who are not only comfortable with data analysis but are also able to put things in a cultural context, is beyond crucial. It’s what we have to do,” Richey says. “There are the skills you have to have, but if you’re not putting them into context, you’re going to do more harm than good. We don’t just want people out there turning knobs to try to optimize profit. We really believe, from the St. Olaf perspective, that this is how you make things better in a cultural sense. We want to have an impact in a broader context.”

For Fisher, working on a project with real-world impact contextualized her own skills and made the work that much more meaningful.

“The most rewarding part of the experience was presenting our work to the CDRG and various other groups on campus. Distilling a month of persistence and problem solving into a single deliverable proved that all of the work we put into the project was worth the effort,” Fisher says. “Ultimately, our team was very proud of what we were able to put together in such a short period of time and it was a special experience for all of us.”