Hacking the Future

Encouraging Innovation in a Data-Driven World

Students learning at STEMworks Kes Schroer, program associate for STEMworks, works with a student during one of the 125 hours of drop-in tutoring offered each week. (Logan Werlinger/the George Washington University)

If you want to analyze whether the House Agriculture Committee reflects the overall preferences of members of the House of Representatives for your Political Science dissertation, where do you start?

“There was no computer program that did that and no logical place to go for help,” Provost Forrest Maltzman said when speaking about how he tackled just this dilemma. He had to devise his own program, spending a month visiting departments and offices around the University of Minnesota to find the help he needed. That experience stayed with him throughout his career, and inspired him to work with GW Libraries and Academic Innovation (GWLAI) to create STEMworks. Now, GW students and faculty seeking to break ground in quantitative research will be able to turn to STEMworks.

 

Provost Forrest Maltzman opening STEMworks

Provost Forrest Maltzman and Geneva Henry, dean of Libraries and Academic Innovation, cut the ribbon on the new STEMworks center in Gelman Library. (Logan Werlinger/the George Washington University)

STEMworks opened in September 2017 in a newly renovated space on the entrance floor of Gelman Library, and is a one-stop shop to boost data skills just as the Writing Center, located on the same floor, does for writing and editing. Services are available for all GW students, faculty, and staff, regardless of discipline or major, to build skills for research and discovery. Dean Geneva Henry and her staff worked to configure the new space and equip it with a state-of-the-art video telepresence system donated by Cisco and its partner DISYS Solutions. With a focus on active learning and flexibility, the room has electricity throughout and desks on wheels that allow for highly mobile interactions among students and faculty.

“We have incredible students at GW, and they want to be prepared for the world of the future. And in the world of the future, analytics — the analyzing of data and trying to figure out patterns — is a key part of it,” the Provost said at the STEMworks opening. GWLAI is helping prepare students to flourish in this new world with instruction and assistance in skills like writing code in Python and R, two of the most popular computer programming languages for data analysis; using GIS (geographic information systems) software to visualize data geographically; and navigating and managing large-scale data collections.

 

Students take advantage of peer tutoring in STEMworks

Peer tutoring offers students an opportunity to build a community of support around STEM and quantitative topics. (Logan Werlinger/the George Washington University)

Studies show that about half of bachelor’s degree candidates in STEM change to non-STEM majors before completing a college degree, with women leaving at a higher rate than men. Often students encounter a tough freshman year of calculus, physics, and chemistry, introductory courses typically taught in large lecture halls, and don’t know where to turn for peer support. STEMworks brings together a robust program of peer tutoring with individual, group, and online options to give students the help and supportive peer group that they need to succeed in demanding courses. STEMworks offers 125 hours of drop-in tutoring each week in traditionally challenging courses like economics, finance, and statistics. Jasmina Abdalla, CCAS ‘19, an undergraduate student in biology, understands the struggles some students face when taking STEM courses. She became a tutor because she believes the information is more accessible when offered by a peer. “I feel students are more open to you,” she said. “They will tell you how they really feel when they may be reluctant to speak with a professor.”

 

A librarian provides instruction during the Freelancing 101 workshop in STEMworks

STEMworks offers over 20 free workshops each semester focusing on topics such as programming in Python and accessing data with an API. (William Atkins/the George Washington University)

The 20+ free workshops offered through STEMworks in the fall semester cover a variety of topics from an introduction to data to making 3-D models and working with secure technologies, making new topics and skills easily accessible to students. Mikaela Bennett, MA ‘18, a Middle East and environmental studies graduate student in the Elliott School of International Affairs, is enthusiastic about the workshop offerings through STEMworks — so much so that she attended two in one day. After attending an introductory course on Python in the morning, she learned how to find GIS data and resources that evening. “These workshops are really cool,” she said. “I’m learning things I just don’t have time to do in my degree and I don’t have to invest the time and money for a full course.” Bennett already hopes to use her new GIS skills in her capstone project on water usage in Oman as well as to further her professional career goals. “GIS skills are something I can put on my resume; they are a shortcut to improving my career opportunities.”

 

Program Associate Kes Schroer talks to students

The opening of STEMworks this fall attracted students and faculty from across the University (Logan Werlinger/the George Washington University)

Program Associate Kes Schroer, Ph.D. ‘13, who earned her doctoral degree in human paleobiology from GW, directs the STEMworks program and has been instrumental in shaping its offerings. She’s passionate about STEM and about student success. “Whatever the students need, we are going to get them, especially in the quantitative skills,” she said. “I’m STEM all the way and I hope we can build a diverse community of STEM learners.” Dr. Schroer also wants to lay the groundwork for STEM learners to become STEM earners through workshop offerings such as Freelancing 101, covering topics like copyright issues, the benefits of contracts, and counting billable hours.

Faculty are also taking advantage of this new resource. Professor Donna L. Hoffman, Louis Rosenfeld Distinguished Scholar and professor of marketing in the School of Business, was struggling to analyze a large set of data for her research on how consumers interact with their smart devices. When she heard about coding consultations through STEMworks, she made an appointment right away. She had been teaching herself Python with the many resources available on the internet, but she was flummoxed by a specific problem. An hour-long consultation with programmer Laura Wrubel, a librarian and software developer at GWLAI, helped her understand some Python code she had been stuck on and use a Jupyter notebook — a web application for creating and sharing documents with live code, equations, and visualizations — to explore and wrangle the data in preparation for the analysis she had in mind. “She easily saved me hours of work — maybe weeks,” said Dr. Hoffman, “It’s a little overwhelming when you have a very specific problem, but being able to get this advice is fabulous.” Dr. Hoffman already has plans to use the consulting services again when she begins to debug her new program, finding and fixing software coding errors.

To learn more about how to support STEMworks, please contact Tracy Sullivan, executive director of development for GW Libraries and Academic Innovation, at [email protected] or 202-994-8928.