Dutch Data Science, part 10 - Han and Avans Universities of Applied Sciences


The 10th edition of this series puts the spotlight on two organizations at which I had the pleasure of helping to teach students the humble beginnings of data, analytics and data visualization: Avans and HAN (Hogeschool van Arnhem en Nijmegen). My sources for this post are Gerben Muller, who initially introduced us to Avans (and now works at HAN); Dimitri van de Kelft (Avans, minor Data Science for Smart Industry); and Rico van Hal (HAN, senior lecturer of finance, tax and advice).

It all started a few years ago with a first invitation from Gerben at Avans in Den Bosch to organize a workshop for third-year industrial engineering students. He also invited us to make it a bit fun and interactive. A nice challenge, which we gladly accepted! We ended up converting one of our data science escape rooms into a classroom challenge. Groups of three or four students would work together (and compete against other teams) to catch a notorious hacker. It turned out to be quite a successful approach, so much so that we have been invited back every year since. Since that first workshop, we have been using the same concept for other groups, as well. It always turns out to be a great way to introduce SAS and analytics to a new audience.

Company overview

In the Netherlands, there are two types of universities: the more "classical" theory-based universities and universities of applied sciences, where students are taught in a more hands-on, practical way. Both Avans and HAN are examples of the latter type. The research that universities of applied sciences conduct is also based on practice. Both institutes offer a wide range of study and research opportunities. Avans consists of 21 different schools, and HAN has 14. They’re pretty big, too: over 35.000 students at Avans, and over 33.000 at HAN.

The groups we work with are more modest in size, though, ranging from about 30 students in a finance minor to 150 students at industrial engineering. Besides a comparable size, the universities have more things in common. For example, the campuses are spread out over multiple cities and locations. And since they offer many different programs and modules, student numbers in a particular course tend to be quite small, allowing for a more personalized and intimate teaching atmosphere.

During COVID-19 the biggest challenge is remote learning. An online learning experience is no substitute for live interaction.

Cool projects

The first cool project is, of course, the cyber challenge that students (and even teachers!) participate in. The challenge consists of three different questions to answer in a limited amount of time:

  • Which server has been hacked (using a time series chart)?
  • Which server will be attacked next (using a logistic regression model)?
  • What is the origin of the hack?

Although this is great fun in a classroom, COVID-19 forced us to switch to an online format. That worked wonderfully, as well, with up to 150 students competing!

The project at Avans that SAS is involved in is its new minor, Factory of the Future. In this program, the focus is on smart manufacturing, and we are one of the industry partners teaching the students. For Avans, this is a new way of educating students. And based on the feedback we got, a highly appreciated one, as well.

The HAN has a different, but no less ambitious goal: extending existing minor programs with additional data and analytics skills. The digitization of our society is rapidly picking up pace, and HAN wants prepared students who can hit the ground running.

From a SAS perspective, developing new content for teaching based on a combination of theory and practice is a cool project, as well. Especially integrating concepts from industry as a teaching method. This is a great way to make concepts stick with the audience.  A good example of this is the SAS-developed "factory in a box" that we’ll be using in the next semester at Avans.

Continuous challenges

Both universities mention financing of the different programs as a challenge. Budgeting is a  continuous struggle and varies year to year. Some years the budget is really tight, while in other years there’s enough room to finance the programs. The students need the right resources, like books and software. Charging students extra for books and software licenses isn’t allowed anymore, but this also limits the available budgets.

Software isn’t always free, and in most cases, institutions focus purely on cost, not on educational value. Fortunately, SAS offers SAS Viya for Learners for free to all academic institutions globally.

Sometimes there’s a struggle with time. Teachers need time to master the material themselves but don’t always get this time allocated or manage to schedule this. Many students (and teachers alike) are overwhelmed by all the new concepts; the ongoing challenge is figuring out how to teach complex material in an approachable way.

During COVID-19 the biggest challenge is remote learning. An online learning experience is no substitute for live interaction.

The future of AI and machine learning

This question was discussed in a slightly different way: the future of AI and ML in educational programs. The consensus here was that more minor programs need to be infused with data and analytics. Also, concepts used in specific programs should be made available for others. At Avans, they are looking at two main themes: data science and industrial IoT, and digitization (digital twins). The school needs to further develop them into two experimental programs with a common base.

HAN already has much attention for data science: within its technology program, students can now opt for a full master's degree in data science. Many other minors are working together to integrate data science concepts into the various programs. Their aim is not necessarily to deliver data scientists per se. They also want to train managers of the future who are tech-savvy enough to understand the challenges, and also know what to ask and what to expect from data science.

It is interesting that the schools barely use data science as an instrument to improve education, for instance, by analyzing the probability that a specific student will graduate in four years, or answer more modest questions like the average occupation rate of auditoriums. It looks like this will change in the near future by investigating how to use AI to improve education.

My take

It’s inspiring to see the level of enthusiasm at HAN and Avans from both students and teachers. And it’s equally great to see these institutes recognize the importance of data and analytics, and the required knowledge and experience in these topics for the future generation of managers and practitioners. I’m fortunate to be able to keep supporting the development of new curricula and even teach some of the classes myself. Since I love teaching and introducing the next generation to data, analytics and SAS, it’s been great to be able to help HAN and Avans on their journey. I sincerely thank both universities and all teachers involved for this opportunity and hope more institutes will follow!


About Author

Jos van Dongen

Principal Consultant

Jos von Dongen is a principal consultant at SAS Netherlands, where his main focus is helping data science teams become more productive. His expertise is broad, ranging across data visualisation, data science, machine learning and the Internet of Things, and he has worked in and with both public and private sector organisations. He is the co-author of several books on open source business intelligence, including Pentaho Solutions and Pentaho Kettle Solutions

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