Lessons in Technology Lead to Solutions for Social Problems
Fall proved to be an experimental semester for K.D. Joshi, Philip L. Kays Distinguished Professor of Information Systems. For the first time, she decided to require students in her business intelligence (BI) class to develop technology solutions to social problems rather than solely focusing on economic ones.
“In business schools, we traditionally emphasize economic value, which unwittingly restricts how business education can be applied to solve broader societal problems,” she says. “But business education doesn’t necessarily have to be tied solely to economics or solely to profit making.”
When Joshi began teaching the BI class in 2006, students were expected to develop technology solutions for traditional business problems, such as improving a firm’s sales or profit margins. As time went on, she wanted students to learn to design solutions not only for businesses, but for broader society.
“If we also teach students to think about the social, political, and cultural context surrounding a problem they are trying to solve, they can use their competencies to help improve both commercial and social enterprises,” she says.
Preparing for the challenge
To prepare students for the challenge of building a BI system prototype, Joshi spent the first half of the semester teaching them how to organize data so that clients could easily use it to make informed decisions. In particular, students honed their skills by building a BI prototype in class and focusing on four key pillars of BI: data modeling, data integration, data analytics, and data visualization.
“This project taught me how to take data and turn it into something that could be used to make decisions,” says Thula Parks, a management information systems major. “My group had over 100,000 rows of data, and I had to learn how to clean all of it and make sure it was accurate. I also learned how to use SQL server analysis services to import data and create visual reports in Excel and Tableau for our client.”
Joshi also collaborated with Melanie Brown, director of the WSU Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), to provide students with local community clients experiencing challenges with a social component. Brown suggested one team could analyze WSU students’ awareness, perception, and engagement with the CCE, and another team could analyze the Pullman Community Action Center’s food and monetary donations.
“I am excited to collaborate with Dr. Joshi to incorporate community engagement projects into the curriculum,” says Brown. “There is great potential in enhancing student learning through community-based problem solving.”
Other students in the class found their own clients online. One team chose to analyze the impact of the Green Star Movement on underprivileged youth in Chicago. Green Star is a nonprofit that inspires students and community members through the creation of public art. Another team chose to work with the Federal Way Police Department dataset to analyze crime rates in Washington state.
Real clients provide real world experience
Phillip Weist, an accounting/MIS junior, says the Community Action Center project helped him understand why companies survey their customers and keep record of certain operations to make informed decisions. His group recommended the center could improve its process by recording donor demographics, such as tracking anonymous donations via zip code, noting the timeframe of the donation, and using visual systems to better understand donation patterns.
Tony Truong, an MIS major who worked on the CCE project, says his group recommended getting more WSU students across majors involved to increase diversity within the center, as well as expanding membership beyond the student body.
“The most unique thing about this class was being able to apply what we learned to a real client,” says Truong. “It’s a great feeling knowing your work could potentially make an impact for somebody else.”
Students working on the Green Star Movement team organized survey data to track how schools benefited from the movement and to increase community involvement. The team says thoroughly communicating with group members so that all ideas are considered was one of the best lessons learned from the experience, as well as asking questions—a point reiterated by the Federal Way crime rate team.
“Asking for help is not a sign or weakness; it is strength and showing that you care,” says a crime rate team member. The team identified age, education, income, and neighborhoods as factors with a strong association to crime rate and recommended more patrolling in certain neighborhoods during times when more crime is happening. They also recommended creating other reports to examine where programs such as the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs or YMCAs could be placed to help reduce crime in certain neighborhoods.
Critical skills for future technology leaders
Digitization is changing the nature of work. Giving students hands-on experience designing and building information systems helps them understand these new work environments, says Joshi. “Students with information management skills are critical to developing the workforce needed in the digital economy where work and technology are deeply entangled.”
Establishing the Carson College’s management information systems program as a center of excellence equipped with tools that will help students learn to design technology solutions to create both economic and social value is at the forefront of Joshi’s teaching vision and supports the college’s aspiration of becoming the first choice in the Pacific Northwest for students seeking a business education.