The UPS George D. Smith Prize
Yesterday I attended the presentations (which were open to the public) of the two finalists for the UPS George D. Smith Prize, which rewards “effective and innovative preparation of students to be good practitioners of operations research, management science, or analytics”: the MEng programs at Cornell’s School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (both at the Ithaca and the NYC campus) and the MS program in Business Analytics at the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee. Both have been finalists for the UPS Smith Prize before, and deservedly so. I was extremely impressed with both programs, how they involve practitioners and subject-matter experts in providing the best education for their students, especially through but not limited to an extensive capstone project, how they teach not only analytical skills but also soft skills from day one and how their curriculum has adapted itself to changing workplace needs to always remain relevant. The quality of those programs is evidenced by their outstanding placement record.
Of course the judges asked each finalist what made their program truly innovative and distinctive from the competition, but what I found particularly interesting was the question, also asked to both teams, of what they did to make sure their faculty remained current on the advances in the field. I think it is critical for all faculty in analytics to ask themselves such questions. Most of us strive to remain current in advances in our research area but we also need to remain current in advances in our teaching area and in industry demands.
It is easy to dismiss, say, the emergence of new computing languages such as Python (which, according to data I saw at the meeting of Analytics Program Directors, has taken over R and SAS in job-postings mentions) by saying “we teach them how to think anyway, they can teach themselves that new stuff after graduation” but we also have to recognize the self-serving temptation of not spending time learning that new stuff and preparing new lectures.
And maybe we best teach students how to think by spending time giving detailed feedback on their assignments rather than spending the same amount of time learning a new topic, and maybe not. I particularly admired Cornell and U of Tennessee for their commitment to having faculty stay current in the field and the expectation that faculty will be involved in high-impact capstone projects that help them get a sense of industry preoccupations and train future successful practitioners.
For me (and I’m not a judge, haven’t seen the written applications, wasn’t privy to the deliberations and the winner isn’t known yet and will be announced at the Edelman Gala), University of Tennessee was the clear winner. Again, both finalists made presentations of extremely high quality and clearly have leading programs in analytics that we should all draw inspiration from. Here is why I think UT stands out as the best, though. UT had extensive data on its cohort placement so could make a substantial, quantitative case for the added value of the degree and its success in preparing future practitioners (Cornell focused on CornellTech a lot but it seemed that they had only graduated 1 or 2 cohorts so far and the first one was very small, so while there is no doubt the program is excellent, they were a bit short on hard placement data). UT also spent the 45 minutes of the presentation going in detail over the substance of the degree, instead of showing slick videos of a pretty campus and of big-shot testimonials, although they did have the few “almost mandatory” videos of their campus. The presenters for UT didn’t sound overly rehearsed. They also have a unique value proposition with the first dual MBA-MSBA of its kind. And in the complicated days we live in, I thought it was a nice touch to acknowledge the role of founding alumna Jane Pickett [not sure if I got the name right], later featured in “The Girls of Atomic City” for her role in the Oak Ridge National Lab.
So I hope that University of Tennessee wins tonight, but in any case, both Cornell and the University of Tennessee have outstanding programs that should all motivate us to educate our students in innovative manners and prepare them to become better practitioners.