EWU and Microsoft join forces on new degree program

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SPOKANE — Eastern Washington University is partnering with Microsoft on a new data analytics degree designed to prepare students to enter a fast-growing field.

The university’s College of Business and Public Administration is integrating a 10-course data science program by Microsoft in its senior year curriculum for the new undergraduate degree. Students who complete the program will graduate with a B.S. in data analytics, as well as a Microsoft certificate showing they completed the company’s courses.

“This is the only program in the country with this integration,” EWU president Mary Cullinan said at a news conference announcing the launch Thursday.

Working with big datasets and being able to analyze them is increasingly useful in a variety of fields, even outside of science and technology. Matthew Minton, an EWU alumnus who helped develop the data science curriculum for Microsoft, said data analysis is useful in fields as diverse as sociology, business, finance, journalism and health care.

“Data in our day has exploded,” he said. “It spans more fields than I can even think of.”

Industry analysts anticipate 1.5 million unfilled data science jobs in the U.S. by 2018, said Kristin Rhodes, the general manager of Microsoft’s public sector education for the west and central regions. Microsoft developed a data science curriculum in response to demand for those jobs.

“We need academic and industry to partner together,” she said.

The Microsoft courses are available for free online, with a $99 fee to get a certificate showing completion for each class. But the company found students rarely complete the courses on their own.

Keith Boyd, Microsoft’s director of business strategy for the company’s learning products, said the classes have a completion rate of just 10 percent. He believes that’s because it’s easy to drop out of a self-paced online course without support from peers and instructors holding students accountable and helping if they get stuck.

Through the EWU program, students will work through the courses with help from data analysis faculty and peers.

“It’s almost like a digital textbook,” he said.

EWU has been working on a data analytics degree program for more than a decade, said Elizabeth Tipton, a professor of decision sciences. She said integrating the Microsoft curriculum into students’ senior years would make it easier for them to get practice working in real-life situations, where programs often don’t behave as expected and unusual problems have a way of cropping up.

“That’s a bit different from the classroom, where everything always works out perfectly,” she said.

An initial small class of students will begin the data analytics program this fall, and EWU hopes to recruit a full class to start in the fall of 2018. The university will cover the cost for students in the initial class to receive the data certificate from Microsoft. Faculty will also be involved in updating the curriculum to keep pace with a fast-changing industry.