Math in the City: Local businesses partner with students to analyze data from new perspective

The Nebraska Game and Parks crew applies a chemical called rotenone to Pawnee Reservoir to eradicate white perch and gizzard shad. —NEBRASKA GAME AND PARKS

Dealing with large amounts of data can be complicated, and finding data sets that are usable in the classroom is especially problematic. For 10 years, the Department of Mathematics’ innovative course, Math in the City, has provided student-led mathematical modeling projects to help bridge that gap.

Math in the City, started by Associate Professor Petronela Radu in 2006, gives students the opportunity to partner with local businesses and government organizations and analyze their data from a new perspective. Students engage in a hands-on learning experience around current societal issues of local and national interest.

Partner organizations provide data in a usable form and are consulted by the students throughout the course, thus creating strong connections between academia and industry.

Students learn the basics and backgrounds of their projects, as well as any needed programming skills, in lectures and then begin small-group work. Each group has about three to five students, who choose their group based on the topic, so those with similar interests are working together. The small groups meet weekly with the instructor and also keep in regular contact with the local business partner.

Each team constructs a model that captures the prominent features of the proposed problem; populates the model with the data provided by the local collaborator, transformed as necessary; analyzes the model using appropriate computer software; and draws conclusions from the model that addresses the proposed problem. To conclude each project, the students prepare a detailed written report and give a public presentation describing their work in front of an audience of mathematics faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students, and the local collaborator.

“Our Math in the City students and postdoc instructors become highly employable and more visible because they are doing something different. People look at their applications more carefully,” said Radu, the department’s chief undergraduate adviser.

Katie Beth Pawlowski, a student in the Fall 2013 course, said Math 435 was fundamental in helping her earn her job at Experian as a statistical analyst.

“In the interview process, one of the first questions was: ‘Have you ever worked with big data?’ ” Pawlowski said. “Because of Math in the City I was able to not only say yes, but also to provide examples and situations that showed them I was capable of coping and analyzing big data.”

Justine Yeo, one of the Fall 2012 students, discovered how much she enjoyed working with data, which led her to pursue a graduate degree focusing on survey research and statistics and become a statistical research analyst for the Nebraska Department of Education.

“The majority of my time is spent on developing surveys, cleaning and managing data, performing statistical analyses, creating reports, and presenting results to clients for making informed decisions,” Yeo said.

The first project tackled in Math in the City in 2006 was medical trial analysis with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and original findings resulted from the students’ efforts.

“The first offering of the course had a project that looked at the three key risk factors for heart disease. They used a sample set of data from a UCLA study. The students began analyzing the data in several different ways and wound up splitting the data by men versus women. The data didn’t match. The three key factors were different for men versus women. UCLA didn’t split the data this way, and therefore didn’t find those results,” Radu said.

In 2009, Radu and former UNL faculty member Stephen Hartke received an NSF Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement grant to develop the course as a model for export to other universities. From 2010 to 2012, they held three Math in the City workshops on campus to share their materials and students’ presentations. See more at:

The current semester’s projects analyze the invasive species of white perch fish, with 30 years of data from Nebraska Game and Parks collected from the Branched Oak reservoir. Professor Richard Rebarber, who is teaching this course for the second time, said the students look at the following questions: How do we control the white perch? What is an evolutionary stable strategy? and How will the fish respond to changes in the environment?

“White perch are very problematic to our fisheries in eastern Nebraska,” said Aaron Blank of Nebraska Game and Parks. “Because these fish are not in their historic range, they avoid their historic predators and other biotic and abiotic factors that would keep population size in check. In this partnership, we will be seeing the data analyzed in a completely different way. I’m very excited to see what they come up with and how we can use the information in future projects.”

When Rebarber first taught the course in Fall 2015, the students partnered with Dr. Tucker Zeleny of Husker Athletics. The students analyzed college football scenarios of when to blitz, when to go for a two point conversion after a touchdown, and what to do on fourth down.

“Some of the work the students did verified preliminary results that we had previously found ourselves, and some of it was quite original,” Zeleny said. “At the time, our Sports Analytics department was very new, so the extra manpower provided by the class to investigate a few of our ideas was helpful. It’s always great to get some fresh eyes on a problem, and the students did not disappoint with their creative approaches.”

Other local partners over the years have been Nebraska Global and Beehive, and city, county or state government offices, such as the health department, recycling, and the assessor/register of deeds.

Mentoring students in these semester-long research projects attracts faculty to teach the course.

“Math in the City is unlike any lecture-homework-quiz-exam class I had taught before,” said postdoc Yuan Pei, who taught the course in Fall 2016. “Once the semester started I could feel the passion, higher than any other courses before, from students as they were eager to participate in real-world project using math and statistics.”

Each fall, the class is in high demand, Radu said. Students enjoy taking the lead on the projects, which are related to current events.

“I learned that real life can get pretty messy. Learning this, ironically, was also what I enjoyed most about the course,” Yeo said. “From working with imperfect data, to learning an entirely new programming language, to finding value in understanding real-world circumstances, this course was worth five courses and more to me.”

Contact Radu if your business would be interested in being a partner on a future project.

– Lindsay Augustyn