July 13, 2024

Advancing Business Journey

Empowering Business Excellence

Data with purpose: Marquette Business teaches students to find analytics-driven solutions

4 min read

When the time came to choose a nonprofit partner for a final project in her Applied Economics program class, Sarah Gremonprez reached out to her local Habitat for Humanity chapter, which had the perfect problem for her to solve. They built 65 houses in the past three years and they wanted to increase production to 40 houses per year in each of the next five. How could they entice enough volunteers to contribute the hours to do it? 

“I went through a lot of data to determine what makes a person likely to volunteer more than once and what led people to increase the number of hours they contributed,” says Gremonprez, who graduated from the Master of Science in Applied Economics program. “That information will hopefully allow them to build a plan which will get them closer to their goal.” 

Gremonprez’s work with Habitat for Humanity is an exemplar of business analytics: using data to solve problems. Marquette Business is integrating more analytics-based problem solving across its college curricula, from teaching students basic coding to using artificial intelligence.  

Dr. Mark Barratt, chair and associate professor of management, believes that working with data is not exclusively for computer scientists. Business students may not be designing algorithms that collect data, but they are interpreting data and coming up with actionable insights. 

“Students should be able to take advantage of the massive amounts of data we have now to help their organizations make better decisions, whether that’s better utilization of resources or the selection of different parts of the market to target,” Barratt says. 

A partnership with the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute will help Marquette Business build out its analytics offerings. The NMDSI is a collaboration among Marquette, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee-based financial services provider Northwestern Mutual that cultivates analytics research, talent and technology ecosystems.  

Scott Rex, co-director of the NMDSI and instructor of practice in marketing, envisions the institute as an umbrella for all data analytics activities across campus. He knows firsthand how many lucrative jobs require data proficiency and how comparatively few candidates there are to fill those roles. 

“A big challenge for all of us is finding qualified people in a field where the knowledge is so specialized,” Rex says. “A job might be looking for someone proficient in Python programming for business applications who also knows how to ask smart questions and interpret data to answer those questions. That’s not something you find very frequently.” 

Students like Gremonprez in the MSAE program are hoping to become the kind of professional that Rex envisions. Alvaro Clara, who graduated alongside Gremonprez this past spring with his MSAE degree, also used business analytics while interning in the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis. 

“I was never interested in learning programming languages coming into my degree program, but I ended up learning a lot of cool skills that would have been helpful to know in my prior career.”

Sarah Gremonprez, Master of Science in Applied Economics Class of 2024

“One of the big projects I worked on there had to do with academic interventions,” Clara explained. “My boss and I were interested in seeing how policy changes at Marquette would result in better educational outcomes. We had to balance the possibility that students who were below the GPA cutoff for continued enrollment might perform better with targeted intervention and a second chance against the possibility that they would just accumulate more debt without an improvement in results. 

“This was a great chance to use data to make better, more informed decisions instead of just choosing a path blindly.” 

Some business students shy away from analytics classes because they find the prospect of learning to code intimidating. Gremonprez, who says that basic knowledge of Microsoft Excel is great preparation for coding language education, didn’t find it scary. 

“I was never interested in learning programming languages coming into my degree program, but I ended up learning a lot of cool skills that helped with resource allocation and optimization that would have been helpful to know in my prior career,” Gremonprez says.

There are plenty of ambitious plans for data analytics within Marquette Business. For example, Rex has developed a marketing analytics course that helps undergraduates stand out in the workplace.  

With an expanded suite of analytics courses in mind, Barratt says the college’s focus has widened to include AI — he wants “people with AI skillsets in every discipline” across the college. Massive amounts of data go into developing large language models like ChatGPT, AI forecasting applications and other tools that will help businesses operate smarter. Graduates with analytics proficiency will understand how to interpret and leverage these models in ways that add value. 

There is one thing that Barratt and Rex consider a high priority for the future of data analytics in Marquette Business: growing faculty expertise in the subject. 

“We’ve started taking advantage of some of NMDSI’s funds to attract people with the right skills, and that goes beyond just analytics skills; it incorporates artificial intelligence experience as well,” Barratt says.  

“Recruiting faculty is important to us, but it’s equally important to support research from existing faculty members and make sure they’re using cutting-edge tools,” Rex says. “Ultimately, it’s about making sure everybody — faculty, students and industry partners — has access to the resources they need to correctly apply these data science principles.” 

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