(Note: This is part one of a two-part series)

This week NFL players, fans, thousands of support personnel, and the media descended on San Francisco in preparation for Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. Also in the midst were several dozen data science students from a variety of colleges and universities, there to help out behind-the-scenes and to put their data skills to work for the benefit of the National Football League.

Among the students are a team from Houghton College, in Houghton, NY. Information Management had the opportunity to speak with Carmen McKell, founder of the Center for Data Science Analytics at Houghton College on how this experience came about, and what students will hopefully take away from it.

Information Management: How did this opportunity come about?

Carmen McKell: Part of the development of this new degree program is working in partnership with industry and other colleges and alumni. This connection came through an alumnus, Dr. Dexter Davis from the University of Tennessee at Martin. He graduated from Houghton in 1982 and we got in contact with him.

We saw a write-up about him taking students to the Super Bowl and wanted to talk to him about the possibility of combining sports analytics with the kind of work that he’s doing in sports business. We also knew that he was very strong on experiential learning so it was a very nice mix for the data science program here because one of the unique aspects of this program is its high quality experiential learning opportunities that we’re providing for students here.

Once we made contact with Dr. Davis things just exploded and we actually worked with him this fall taking students to the Amateur Golf Week Tour in Hilton Head. It was a great experience. We had 12-15 students there. They were doing data collection, looking at the economic impact of the tour on the area for the golf tour owners. It was a very great experience both for us – the students, faculty and everyone involved. These same students then had that kind of experience that would enable them to take part in the Super Bowl event.

This is the next event that we talked about with Dr. Davis about doing collaborative work together -- bringing Houghton students along with UTM students. At the Super Bowl there will be students from other colleges there too volunteering. It was that reaching out partnership opportunity with UTM and looking to merge the analytics with the sports business side of things.

IM: What exactly will these students be doing behind the scenes at the Super Bowl and what kind of data skills will they be bring to their role?

McKell: At this point, since this is the very first time that our students are going to the Super Bowl one of the main goals for them is to gain domain knowledge and what I mean by that is understanding what goes on in trying to coordinate an event as big as the Super Bowl in terms of what is happening on the business side of things, and what is happening on the hospitality side. In the actual work that they’ll be doing they’ll be volunteering at the NFL On Location Experiences Fan Zone area, where they’ll be helping out with hospitality type of activities.

On game day they’ll be working with Dr. Dexter Davis and almost being personal assistants to some of the players and the Hall of Famers that will be there. These students will be helping to transport these players to different events for signing autographs, that sort of thing.

Our students will be looking at what sort of data or information is being collected as they engage in these kinds of activities with the idea that between now and next year being able to work with some of the executives there to identify a more analytic type of projects that students might be able to work on to help these people make decisions around things like where to set up the various vendors within the Fan Zone. Hopefully that will happen as we engage in and carry on this relationship year after year.

As part of their coursework, a group of students, led by Isaac Hess, will be reviewing all the sports analytics domain information and data sources discovered at the Super Bowl from meetings with executives to behind the scenes hospitality, to prepare recommendations for how future data science students can add value to the NFL On Location Experience organization next year. This could fall into areas related to player performance, sports business, and even player health injury data.

IM: How did these seven students get originally selected to work on these projects?

McKell: These are students that expressed interest in this new program in data science. Some are minoring in data science and some are majoring in data science. That is the primary reason why these students were interested and they wanted to engage in hands-on work where they could actually follow through with the data process right from the very beginning in terms of designing a study to the end, in terms of the data visualization. That’s why they were interested in this experience. Some of them are also athletes so they have a strong interest in sports analytics. They play baseball, softball, soccer.

IM: What have the students expressed interest in taking away from the experience?

McKell: I think their main interest is to get a better understanding of the domain of sports analytics in general and looking at it from the perspective of what happens behind the scenes at an event as big as the Super Bowl. Some of these students are going to go on into graduate school and I think it helps prepare them for that. It also certainly doesn’t hurt to have working for the NFL On Location on their resume. They’re looking to hopefully be able to use this experience to get into the job market very quickly and a high quality type of job.

IM: Will the students get to see any of the game itself?

McKell: I think they may see parts of the game. They may see the half time show. But I’m not certain on that. Their primary responsibility is to be taking orders from NFL On Location. They don’t have that expectation but they will be in the stadium and they may be able to see parts of it. I think at the end all of the students will be able to go onto the field for pictures and that sort of thing.

IM: We’ve been talking a lot about sports analytics. Are these students interested in sports analytics specifically or is that just a part of their broader studies in data science in general?

McKell: I would say its part of their broader studies. Some of these students are also participating in data science projects in the field of healthcare. We have a new model that we’re testing out here, which is a student-led data science consulting group. For the first time we have a paying client and the students will be getting paid so it is very much close to a real life consulting experience in the field of data science. We’re working with a consulting firm out of Indianapolis looking at how to improve senior care at senior care facilities across the US. Not all of the students are planning to go in the field of sports analytics. I would say it’s really more part of the data science experience overall.

IM: What are your hopes and the faculty’s hopes for what the students will take away from the experience?

McKell: First and foremost we want them to have a good experience and expand their knowledge of sports business and sports analytics in general based on the experiential opportunity.

Secondly, we hope that these students come back with an opportunity to talk about their Super Bowl experiences in a way that will help attract more students into the program, and even more students coming to Houghton College because this is an opportunity that we hope to be doing year after year. That will help out in making the data science program attractive in general.

It’s new program so these students have already volunteered to be ambassadors for the program in that sense because they’re the first ones to do this. We’re going to be putting together a video to capture the whole journey from their end, and again put this out for prospective students to look at.

IM: Please tell us about the program for data science at the school.

McKell: The program is an undergraduate data science degree program. The goal is to equip students with the kind of tools and understanding of the principles of data science so they can work in data science teams once they graduate, or else go on to graduate school. The program is very multi-disciplinary and flexible in nature so they can adjust it to their interests because data science applies to a number of different fields like statistics, analytics, computer programming, even finance and communications.

This is a liberal arts college so it’s a great opportunity to combine both the technical and the creative in this environment. That is one of the things that make this program stand out. These students are also interested throughout the program on the ethnical use of data. The program is more interested in producing talent to work in data science teams than in producing an individual data scientist. Our goal is to focus on the experiential side of it, and then the team oriented aspect of data science.

IM: The students are also scheduled to work with Tableau Software while at the Super Bowl event. How did that come about and what will the students be doing there?

McKell: That came about with our connection with Trina Chiasson. She’s the senior product manager at Tableau Software. Last year she was part of our data science senior seminar class. She had a company called InfoActive that was bought out by Tableau. At that time, she was working with our students on data science projects, where they were using her software to produce data visualization at the end of their projects.

It was a great experience for the students and it also gave Trina a chance to test out her software in that environment. It was a great collaboration and we’ve maintained contact with her since then. Now she is working with Tableau, is in charge of their new product called Visible, which is a software designed for the tablet designed to help people visualize data from multiple sources. It’s a great tool for the undergraduate level, and we want to collaborate with her in an on-going way, perhaps looking at a summer camp or a boot camp for high schoolers as part of our program. She loves working with students, and she’s a great role model for these students. The students are very familiar with Tableau and they’re very curious how products come together and what goes into it.

IM: What do you find to be the most exciting aspect of this Super Bowl week opportunity for the students?

McKell: What is most exciting from my perspective is to watch and see how students understand what data science is by doing it. I can see their faces light up when they engage in the various aspects of the data science process, and by the end of it I know they really understand what is involved in carrying out these kinds of projects.

There is some debate out there as to what exactly is the definition of data science because it’s such a new field and it’s a rapidly evolving field. I like to see our students learning data science by actually doing it and then they themselves can define it based on their own experience. I love to see that happening on the ground with these students.

(In part two tomorrow: The experiences and expectations of one data science student at Super Bowl 50)

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