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When three graduate students at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) traveled to Malaysia to present a data analytics project that had won them accolades, they put UMUC’s online education model in the global spotlight.

“It was exciting and they did a good job,” said Elena Gortcheva, chair of UMUC’s Master of Science in Data Analytics program and the team’s mentor. She said her students brought two distinctions to the 5th International Big Data and Analytics Educational Conference on Malaysia’s Langkawi Island, held July 17. Each team member was a working professional and each was pursuing a graduate degree online. In contrast, the only other team invited to present —from Canada’s Dalhousie University—was made up of younger students studying in traditional classroom settings.

To get to Malaysia, UMUC’s Tracy Carr, Elizabeth Handy and Abebaw “Abel” Zeleke and the two-member Dalhousie team beat out 210 contenders in the prestigious IBM Watson Analytics Global Competition held at the end of May to tie for top honors and secure the invitation to present their winning work at the Big Data conference.

The UMUC project, "Climate and Landscape Change Effects on Lyme Disease," used unusual sources of data, including construction permits, to explore how data analytics could help pinpoint areas where Lyme Disease outbreaks could occur. Because the UMUC students were scattered across the country—in Georgia, Maryland and North Carolina—they collaborated via phone, Skype and virtual platforms.

“Our university is not a typical university. The other participants were from a traditional university,” Gortcheva said. “At the conference, I presented our curricula work. There was interest not just in the subject of big data analytics but also in the type of student population we have and the broader and broader implementation of online education.

“They [conference attendees] were interested in how we do online education successfully in a field like data analytics that is constantly changing,” she explained.

Educators may get a closer look at that challenge in 2019 when the University of Maryland hosts the International Big Data and Analytics Educational Conference on its College Park campus. Next year, the conference will be held in China.

At the Malaysia gathering, the Dalhousie team presented first, detailing a project focused on clean energy. Then the UMUC team stepped up. “We had a glitch with the Internet so we weren’t able to demonstrate as much as we had planned, but all three of us were happy with what we did,” Carr said. “It was successful.

“Abel and Beth and I met each other for the first time, so that was neat, too,” added Carr, a data analyst at Wells-Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

After the presentations, the Dalhousie team edged out UMUC by winning a popular vote among members of the audience, but the UMUC team said their big honor came from being invited to participate.

The annual IBM competition looks for ways in which the company’s Watson Analytics platform can spark innovative analytics solutions. The IBM competition and UMUC helped cover the students’ travel expenses.

Gortcheva said the UMUC team demonstrated that big data analytics is not only about using databases, but also about how stories can be told through data.

“Data analysts may have to present their results to a manager at work, someone who may not have a deep knowledge of the technology but needs to know the value of the results. This presentation let the [UMUC] team members step forward as storytellers,” Gortcheva said. “This is a skill not everyone has. They managed to tell their story in an engaging way using the capability of the software.”

Handy, who is marketing director at Maryland University of Integrative Health, said the UMUC project was “looking at a problem and trying to go down to the county level, to figure out how to affect policy.”

Carr, Handy and Zeleke completed the requirements for their Master of Science in data analytics in early August. Zeleke, the technical lead for General Motor Corporation’s Enterprise Application Integration Team in Atlanta, said he is interested in pursuing a doctorate in data analytics.

The students said the Malaysia trip, which meant crossing countries, continents and time zones, did more than give them experience in presenting to an international audience. It also broadened their world view.

“It was my first time in Asia,” said Handy, who traveled to Malaysia several days early with her wife to tour around the country. Carr, meanwhile, took her 15-year-old daughter along on the trip. And Zeleke, who explored the country briefly, said he wants to return with his wife and three children for a family vacation.

Handy encouraged other UMUC students to take part in IBM’s annual competition. “Let me put it this way,” she said. “It got us to the other side of the world—literally.”