Students in the master's program in data science at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) drove real-world results using SAS® Viya® for the labor market analytics company Lightcast. The project gave students practical analytical tools to solve a business challenge – invaluable career preparation.
At the same time, Lightcast gained business insights around sales opportunities and was able to engage in the type of relationship building they encourage among their educational partners and institutions.
The project was exactly the kind of opportunity James Blum, PhD, Professor of Statistics in UNCW’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics sought. Since the department launched the master’s program in data science in 2017, he has continually looked for ways to provide students with real-world experiences, including applied learning, to engage them more deeply in the curriculum and better prepare them for in-demand industry careers.
Blum, who has spent over 20 years teaching various statistics and SAS programming courses, knew of SAS’ commitment to integrating applied learning experiences into university curricula. In spring 2022, he reached out about project opportunities for students in the Master of Data Science program.
“Our program is always looking for good practicum projects, so when I was talking with SAS about the academic partnerships, I asked if they had any clients who would like to make a proposal,” says Blum. “Lightcast was their first suggestion, and it turned out they wanted to make a proposal.”
A tremendous hands-on opportunity for students
“When the team at SAS reached out about the opportunity to work with graduate students at UNCW on a data-related project, we immediately signed on,” says John Barnshaw, Lightcast’s Vice President for Education Success. “It was a great opportunity to help serve as a model for many of the talent connections we discuss with our education institutions and partners.”
Starting in May 2022 and spanning the next several months, four students worked as a team of Lightcast consultants – taking on the full range of duties from data management and analysis to all client communications while meeting regularly with representatives from SAS Academic Programs.
According to Blum, one of the major benefits of a practicum project is the opportunity for students to work on a project that has real business consequences for an outside client.
“Most faculty – myself included – include project/teamwork in our courses. But the consequences of those are just the standard academic consequence: grades. This team has approached the practicum project with greater degrees of enthusiasm and trepidation due to the higher stakes, and that's a learning experience that is extremely important for students about to enter their first job.”
Project participants, like graduate student Hugh Ryder, agree.
“Working with data on a real project to support a client was extremely valuable and opened our eyes to situations we will be thrown into in the workplace day-to-day,” says Ryder. “I’ll be pursuing a career as a statistical programmer, so this project has been extremely beneficial in improving my knowledge of SAS. Our team also had the opportunity to experience SAS® Viya®, which has been incredibly useful when creating decision trees. The interactive nature and ease of creating complex visualizations were vital and much easier to accomplish in SAS Viya.”
Students deliver practical results, attracting clientele
After several months of work, the UNCW student team delivered a project update to Lightcast leadership in October and their final project presentation in December.
Barnshaw believes that the practicum has had direct, practical value for Lightcast – specifically through the student analyses and estimates on institutions that were the best opportunities to target new sales. He notes that the team also highlighted areas where Lightcast successfully attracted clients, which led to a productive discussion on what they did well to attract those partners and how they could replicate that for similar institutions that the students identified.
"By identifying both a strategy and sales opportunities through SAS and the students at UNC Wilmington, we were able to leverage available data in novel ways that have already led to fruitful discussions on what types of clients we should target as we move forward at Lightcast,” says Chris Watkins, Senior Vice President for Education Sales at Lightcast.
“On a broader scale, this was a great opportunity to put into practice what we suggest to colleges, universities and our education partners,” adds Barnshaw. “We often share that it is no longer sufficient to simply teach in-demand skills and that students need practical experience – whether a project like this one, an internship or a capstone. Going through the process with UNCW helped us understand what works and what advice we can give to our education partners and institutions based on our experience.”
As the project ends, UNCW and Lightcast are already looking forward to the opportunity to support other students in projects in the future. What is their advice for other institutions considering participating in a project like this one? Your competitors are doing it and you should, too.
“I have participated in numerous practicums with different organizations and there is very little downside to participating," says Barnshaw. "Generally, you get highly motivated students who want to do their best work for you; you get the opportunity to evaluate the best talent before you have to hire. They can get some expertise into how your organization works to assess the fit,” says Barnshaw. “This is a tight market, and for organizations that do not have the resources to compete with the largest companies in your sector, building talent connections with colleges and universities is a great way to gain a competitive advantage. The added bonus of working with SAS is the ability to rely on their industry knowledge – you’re getting the best-curated talent with their expertise, which can help grow the competitive advantage gap.”