Professor Eric Jiang, PhD, offered his data mining students a number of options for their final project last spring, one of which was to participate in the 2011 Data Mining Cup—a grueling 6-week competition open to both undergraduate and graduate students. Cameron Askew and John Lopez jumped at the opportunity—and with great success. Despite being the two youngest participants in the competition, the team walked away with second place and a $2,150 cash prize.
"It was a bold, risky yet fantastic choice made by these two students, and the project provided them with a great and practical opportunity to apply what they learned from the class to solve a real-world problem," Jiang said.
Data mining is a booming discipline, which involves utilizing patterns found in large sets of data. Askew and Lopez were challenged to create an original algorithm for one of data mining's most familiar business applications.
"The primary task for the competition in 2011 was to develop an efficient product recommendation system that predicts the products customers would be interested in purchasing, based on a transactional dataset that contains over 9.5 million customer behavioral records," Jiang said.
At first, the challenge seemed daunting. According to Lopez, the team spent weeks brainstorming possible approaches before beginning to program. Adding to the pressure was their concern that they might be out of their league.
"We saw the long list of participating teams including some nationally renowned universities as well as lots of international universities," Askew said. "It was also open to graduate students, so we thought we had very little chance."
But they beat the odds—a feat that they attribute to the excellence of USD's Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.
"I think USD's computer science program holds a special place on the international stage," Askew said. "With so few students per professor, you get more personal attention. We also have professors with very interesting specialties, which leads to a good selection of elective courses including Professor Jiang's Data Mining course."
Jiang said he thinks a broad-based liberal arts computer science program prepares students well for professional careers and graduate studies in the ever-expanding areas of computing applications.
"In comparison to large and technically oriented schools, a liberal arts computer science program offers its unique features," Jiang said. "We all know that a liberal arts curriculum promotes a broad study of multiple disciplines, emphasizes critical thinking, reasoning and analysis, and provides a foundation for lifelong learning. Computer scientists are nowadays no longer just programmers, and most software systems are also application oriented. In order to design and build an attractive and user-friendly software product like iPad, it has become very important for computer scientists to have general knowledge of multiple disciplines (such as psychology, biology and philosophy) and understand the connections between the disciplines."
Lopez hopes to start his own web design and development company one day. Askew has accepted a job at Intel, and also hopes to start a business down the line.
"In my opinion, we have only breached the surface of using computers to help solve sophisticated problems in order to make important decisions," Askew said. "In the coming years, I think we'll see more and more of it. I believe that human intuition is the spark of any great idea, but a computer can help prove the idea's validity, refine the idea, and bring it to reality."
- Anne Malinoski ‘11