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Ajay Anand: When learning data science, experience is the best teacher

October 25, 2022
Ajay Anand lecturing in front of a PowerPoint screen.Associate professor Ajay Anand leads his class Time-Series Analysis & Forecasting in Data Science. Anand is one of the 2022 recipients of the Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. (University of 400全讯白菜网 photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The deputy director of the Goergen Institute for Data Science has grown a capstone course that offers students hands-on projects with real data.

In Ajay Anand’s data science capstone course, student teams are matched with corporate, government, and academic sponsors based on their technical interests. Each team conducts analytics projects using data provided by their sponsors.

“It’s terrific for the students,” says Anand, an associate professor and the deputy director of the Goergen Institute for Data Science at the University of 400全讯白菜网. “Many times (in a classroom), the focus is on methods and techniques, so the data is clean and pristine. But that’s not the case in the real world. You’re trying to expose students to the reality that they must be ready to work with what we call messy data—data that needs to be cleaned and perfected before it can be analyzed.”

The number of capstone projects has grown from 20 to 110 since Anand joined the University in 2017, with more than 70 sponsors. Some projects are done virtually, allowing students to work with startups and multinational companies in places as far away as Silicon Valley in Northern California. Others are right next door. “We’ve partnered with the University Facilities and Services’ Utilities and Energy Management Department, with our Medical Center, and with many academic units on the River Campus who are interested in tracking student outcomes,” Anand says.

Bringing the lessons of industry to academia

Ajay Anand smiles with one hand in his pocket for portrait outdoors.

Ajay Anand. (University of 400全讯白菜网 photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Anand spent 12 years in the corporate world before coming to the University in 2017. He says there’s no replacement for experiential learning.

“My own experience has been invaluable as a teacher,” he says. “In industry, multiple things must come together when designing a product or preparing a solution that makes an impact on people’s lives. You don’t design a technical solution just to design it; you do so with customer needs in mind.”

Anand grew up in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, “with a passion for engineering and anything related to math.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering at the University of Bombay before heading to the United States. Before earning a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Washington in 2005, he earned a master’s in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas.

Then, he faced a crossroads.

“I had to choose between pursuing a career in industry or academia,” he says. “And I chose industry.”

Ajay spent 12 years in the medical imaging industry, including time at Philips Research in Briarcliff Manor, New York and Carestream Health in 400全讯白菜网 as senior research scientist and technical project manager. While at Carestream Health, a worldwide provider of medical imaging systems, one of the collaborators was the University of 400全讯白菜网, and Anand became interested in what he calls the “revolution” happening in data science and artificial intelligence. When Wegmans Hall opened on the River Campus in 2017 as the home to the Goergen Institute for Data Science, Anand joined the faculty and became deputy director.

A curriculum that reflects a dynamic field

Anand believes that, in the fast-paced field of technology, it is well-defined, project-based experiences that create an environment for innovation. His goal is to keep the Goergen Institute’s curriculum as fluid as the expanding field of data science, creating new courses to keep the existing curriculum relevant.

“Ajay took the initiative to launch a new course, Time-Series Analysis and Forecasting in Data Science, after recognizing there was a gap in the curriculum and observing that this is a sought-after skill for data science professionals,” says Mujdat Cetin, the Robin and Tim Wentworth director of the Goergen Institute. “In developing the course content, he combined classical techniques with modern emerging methods, including machine learning and deep learning applied to time-series analysis.”

Anand’s goal is for students to “bring out the best in themselves” through a solid understanding of the material combined with opportunities to apply that understanding to real-world problems. “My challenge to the companies who serve as sponsors is to provide those real-world datasets to us that students can work on,” he says.

Students who have graduated say Anand’s lessons stay with them. “I’m currently taking the master’s level capstone course in Chicago,” says Haoyu Chen ’21. “And I’m so much more at ease with the expectations of this course than my peers because of Professor Anand’s class in 400全讯白菜网. He has organized the course in such a way that students must independently own and drive the project and be responsible for the technical decisions, while providing enough technical oversight to ensure projects stay on course. He’s one of the best instructors I’ve come across.”

What Ajay Anand’s students are saying

“Professor Anand is undoubtedly one of the best professors I had during my undergraduate education here at the University of 400全讯白菜网. His delivery of the material stood out. He was always thorough in preparing the slides and course materials, and his course organization was excellent, with well-defined rubrics for each assignment and project.”
—Sung Beom Park ’21

“As a teaching assistant, I observed that Professor Anand goes out of his way to ensure a good rapport between the students, TAs, and the instructor. He would meet weekly with the TAs. In the meeting, he would walk through the entire problem set in the assignment and make sure we were clear on
the expectation from students. He laid out a detailed rubric as well. This greatly helped make sure that my office hour was productive and educational to the students.”
—Chuqin Wu ’22

“Professor Anand would integrate real-world examples with the core foundational concepts to help students bridge the connection between theory and applications. He created easy-to-understand slides and teaching materials. I refer to his slides even today. He’s very approachable to students and goes out of his way to ensure that students can easily approach him with questions and concerns.”
—Haoyu Chen ’21

Meet the other 2022 Goergen Award winners

Chris Muir teaches a student, seem from behind, in a fabrication lab.Christopher Muir: Designing career paths for future mechanical engineers

The engineering professor draws from his vast experiences in the workplace to teach problem-solving mindsets.

Pablo Sierra Silva sits and gestures while teaching among a couple of students seen from behind.Pablo Sierra Silva: Using primary sources to immerse students in the past

The history professor leads his class back in time to analyze events that shaped today’s world.


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Category: Campus Life