Solving Real-World Problems: Capstone Data Science Program Addresses Client Needs
By Nick Wilson
Cal Poly’s Capstone Lab program is tackling real-world problems — from human trafficking monitoring to identifying threatened species on the East Coast — bringing together professional clients and students from multiple majors through a collaborative approach to data science.
Statistics Associate Professor Hunter Glanz, who this year led team-oriented projects in partnership with Computer Science Professor Alex Dekhtyar, said Capstone involves computer science, math and statistics while students hone their technical writing skills.
“We choose projects that we’re confident will give the students a good experience and the chance to be successful within 20 weeks,” Glanz said. “We ask them to use at least some of their data science skills already and hopefully learn some new ones as well.”
Current student groups analyze data around human trafficking working with the Global Emancipation Network, identify species in soil samples in Florida as part of an environmental restoration project with the Smithsonian Institute and annotate human behavioral data as part of a Fitbit-related kinesiology project, working with Cal Poly Kinesiology Associate Professor Sarah Keadle.
Students have worked on detecting and then blurring faces as part of Keadle’s kinesiology project to protect participant confidentiality.
“I really enjoy solving problems with practical applications,” said Sarah Ellwein, a third-year math major and data science minor. “It feels like this three-hour setting is not just a lab. Our group meetings involve working with clients to assess what they need and how we can provide it. It’s a true team-building experience.”
In recent years, the Capstone program has delivered productive, tangible results on matters including financial fraud, how use of public transportation differs by gender and much more.
The human trafficking project, an ongoing collaboration that has involved past and current students, tracks illicit massage parlors and looks into owners with multiple businesses to gauge the potential breadth of illegal operations.
On a bimonthly basis, students meet with professional clients to discuss directional goals and updates in a newly remodeled classroom and collaborative space on the third floor of the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics.
They gather in-person or on Zoom in breakout rooms and then reconvene in the main classroom to discuss broader topics.
Glanz said that students in Capstone tend to be statistics and computer sciences majors, but math and political science students also have participated.
Students complete a prerequisite course to learn the basics of developing data-driven solutions for systems, ethics and professionalism, before working with clients.
“We bring the clients in to describe the projects at the end of fall, and then we survey students on their interests and work over winter break to try to put them into good teams for each of the projects,” Glanz said.
They ultimately deliver a report and a presentation at the end of each of the two quarters. Glanz said that some amount of coding also may be involved.
“And so that's usually extra on top of like the report and presentation that we're asking for, but it varies by team,” Glanz said. “The goal is to provide well-organized and usable information, which is a great practice for our students.”