Innovate and collaborate. These are two key themes of the School of Data Science. Through the capstone project, students collaborate with clients and innovate through their work.

But why capstones? What is the capstone project at the School of Data Science?

Every MSDS student must complete a capstone project throughout the 11-month program. Students work in groups with different businesses and clients to improve or solve a problem with data science. 

Claudia Scholz, the Director of Research Development at the School of Data Science, further explained the value of the capstone program.

“The capstone program is one of the primary ways that the School of Data Science engages with the community,” Scholz said. “Students apply their data science knowledge to help solve problems in the real world. I’m always impressed by the diversity of domains where we can apply data science approaches: health, literature, business, management, the list goes on.”

This past year, one of the capstone projects involved two students, James Howerton and Ben Schenck, working with Smart Cville, a nonprofit that empowers civic innovation and encourages the use of technology-driven solutions to improve cities across Central Virginia. 

The students worked with Smart Cville to distribute environmental sensors throughout Charlottesville, creating the first sensor network with Free and Open Source technologies in the region.

Lucas Ames, the founder of Smart Cville, noted the contribution of working with MSDS students and added capacity to the Smart Cville team. 

“For us, the level of expertise, and special expertise, of the capstone students gives us ‘extra legs’ and an extra push to move a project forward,” Ames said. “The team was asked to provide a replicable prototype air quality sensor that connected to the Cville Things Network, a free and community supported IoT network in Charlottesville.  Their final product was a fantastic example that included clear circuit diagrams for replication by citizen scientists.”

In addition to Smart Cville, the School of Data Science works with a number of other corporate, nonprofit and academic partners, ranging from national businesses to local organizations. Recent partners include Capital One, Clarabridge, LMI, Babylon Micro Farms, and S&P Global.  

These companies have all worked with MSDS students through the capstone project, furthering students knowledge and experiential learning, while also giving these companies an opportunity to pursue a project to better their business through data science.

The Clarabridge partner/sponsor, also a UVA alum, shared that MSDS students had the technical skills needed to produce functional code. 

“Their work helped validate what we were trying to achieve,” Ellen Loeshelle, Senior Director of Product Management at Clarabridge, noted. “Working with students on an exploratory project allowed us to focus on the data part of the problem rather than the business part, while testing with little risk. If our hypothesis falls flat, we gain valuable information; if it is validated or exceeded, we gain valuable information and are a few steps closer to a new product offering than when we started.”

Another benefit of the Capstone partnerships is the mentorship relationships that are formed through the process. 

Through these projects, employees work with students to give them hands-on learning opportunities, and students develop skills and strengths through working with employees.

Another partner, Babylon Micro Farms, which provides a platform to make indoor farming accessible, worked with MSDS students to use data science to determine how a plant is growing.

In this project, the students used image processing and created a machine learning algorithm that determined how well a plant is growing. 

Amandeep Ratte, a design thinker at Babylon Micro Farms, was impressed by the MSDS students and their knowledge. 

As a startup manager, Ratte would not have had the time to devote to tackle a problem of this magnitude, but through the capstone project Babylon Micro Farms now has this algorithm and momentum to continue research. 

“Experiential learning is the cornerstone of UVA’s master’s program in data science,” Scholz said. “It allows students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to a real problem and a real data set.  Students learn how to work in groups, plan projects, communicate with clients and test different approaches.  There are a lot of places to learn data science content.  The capstone is what makes UVA’s master’s program uniquely valuable.”

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Contact Claudia Scholz, Director of Research Development, (cws3v@virginia.edu) for more information on the capstone project and Wendell Collins (swc8q@virginia.edu), Director of Development, for more information on corporate partnerships.