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First In-Person DataFest Held at Cal Poly: Tackling Complex Problems in Teams

Cal Poly Statistics students at DataFest The winning Cal Poly DataFest team called the R-Sonists (from left): Cameron Stivers, Anagha Sikha, Kirina Sirohi and Rachel Roggenkemper.

June 2024
by nick wilson

The idea of spending a weekend analyzing large sets of data to create solutions for complex challenges might not sound appealing to some — but not so for participants of the DataFest.

"To the outsider, spending 48 hours exploring, analyzing, and visualizing a data set might not sound fun, but statisticians get sucked in easily," said Emily Robinson, a Cal Poly statistics professor.

Cal Poly DataFest 2024Cal Poly's first in-person DataFest was held April 26-28, 2024, when student teams tackled a problem that challenged them with examining data and making suggestions to help CourseKata, an innovative online textbook for teaching introductory statistics and data science. The goal: to improve the student learning experience.

Cal Poly statistics major Rachel Roggenkemper, a member of the "R-sonists" student team that won Best in Show, said the challenge was pretty open-ended, without a specific problem to solve.

"They wanted us to show in general how to improve the student learning experience," Roggenkemper said. Roggenkemper's winning team also included three other statistics majors — Anagha Sikha, Kirina Sirohi and Cameron Stivers.

"I was super excited to be able to apply the skills I have learned in my classes to an outside project," Roggenkemper said. "One of my favorite things about Cal Poly is our famous Learn by Doing motto, and I really see that implemented in the statistics, data science and computer science classes through projects."
During DataFest, teams of three to five undergraduates engage in a 48-hour data analysis marathon, working to decipher a complex dataset and craft insightful solutions.

Each year, the organizers at the American Statistical Association (ASA) put together the dataset challenge and overarching questions from a real company and distribute the data, documentation and a welcome video to participating institutions.

DataFest started at UCLA in 2011, and this year included more than 72 participating institutions.

Cal Poly statistics Professor Hunter Glanz first established DataFest as an instructionally related activity at the San Luis Obispo campus. But the pandemic forced the first intended in-person event at Cal Poly to be held virtually in 2020. And it wasn't until this year that an in-person event could be organized.

"I was interested in getting a regular in-person DataFest started at Cal Poly and there has been excitement from students and support from other faculty (we formed a planning committee)," Robinson said.

During DataFest, teams work with their peers in the same large workspace early in the mornings and late into the evenings.

"We had food, snacks, and faculty mentors popping in throughout the weekend," Robinson said. "This is not only a great event for building academic and data analysis skills, but I see it as a great way to build community between students as well as student to faculty connections."

Veering from the experience of most class assignments that are guided and focused on a particular skill or analysis, in DataFest students gain experience collaborating on an open-ended data challenge, Robinson said.

"This allows them to show their creativity and expand their problem-solving skills," Robinson said. “Additionally, the data is not always clean. This gives students real-world experience dealing with data quality challenges."

The event culminated in five-minute presentations where teams share their findings and insights. Awards were given for Best in Show, Best Visualization, and Best Use of Outside Data.

Sophia Chung was a winner at DataFest Statistics major Sophia Chung helped organize the 2024 DataFest, assisting the Statistics Department.

The Cal Poly competition concluded with trophies for the winning teams who also received a free ASA membership. Of the Cal Poly event's four judges this year, three were Cal Poly alumni
"We aimed to have judges with a variety of backgrounds (academia, industry, etc.) with experience in analytics or data visualization," Robinson said. "We hope to host DataFest at Cal Poly annually and will be looking to expand our judging recruitment."

This year's event included Cal Poly statistics majors, as well as a handful of computer science major participants.

"My dream would be that in three to five years we have this down to a science and we can start inviting teams from UCSB and Cal State Monterey Bay to create a Central Coast DataFest event," Robinson said.

If interested in judging, contact Emily Robinson ( to be added to the list of potential judges for future years.

Read about a previous DataFest event involving Cal Poly students.

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