by Katherine D., Concordia Applied Journalism
Intelligent and passionate, Dr. Peter Tong, Concordia’s Honors Pre-Calculus, Multivariable Calculus, Aerospace, and Applied Learning Big Data teacher offers an enthusiastic welcome and nudges aside a pile of graded homework assignments. With his open and friendly persona, he launches into his personal story of big data analytics, which dates back to 2003.
Dr. Tong first heard about the rise in “datamining” — the term coined for big data back then — as a graduate student in Australia when news of a local competition seeking talented data analysts reached his ears. As someone who has always been extremely passionate about finding the inherent patterns in mathematics and beyond, he was immediately drawn to this new discipline.
Discovering the potential for Big Data several years before it garnered mainstream public view, one of Dr. Tong’s main objectives for his course is to give students “an extra edge or advantage over other high schoolers” in our data-driven 21st century. However, as an interdisciplinary subject that encompasses a diverse range of subjects, Dr. Tong’s class shouldn’t be confused as to being oriented towards only one part, such as mathematics, computer science, or statistics. Instead, the emphasis is on analytics itself.
“At the core of [the class] is what you can harvest from your pool of data,” explains Dr Tong. “These days everyone wants a glimpse into a crystal ball,” he adds, referring to a method of fortune telling popularized in some cultures. “We know the crystal ball doesn’t exist,” continues Dr. Tong, “but data analytics gives us the ability to predict many things previously thought to be random events. This allows a pathway for us to better prepare for the future.”
During the semester-long course, Big Data students first receive a general introduction to big data and then mainly focus on completing one data analytics project that they are given free rein to choose the topic of. This project-based curriculum allows for thorough research and an opportunity for students to present their ideas at the annual BDAEC (Big Data Analytics Education Conference) or ICBDAE (International Conference of Big Data Analytics in Education) conferences. Since the course’s creation, a growing number of students—from only one at first to now five last year—have been selected for attendance at these platforms previously only designated for graduate-level research.
"data analytics gives us the ability to predict many things previously thought to be random events"
- Dr. Peter Tong
In fact, one student group went as far as to win the Excellent Presentations award at ICBDE 2 years ago. Drawing their inspiration from the AQI problem in Shanghai, they tackled the air quality issue by analyzing VOC, CO2, and pm2.5 data collected from hardware built by themselves with the help of the AP Physics teacher, Dr. Joel Klammer. Their eventual discovery that the CO2 levels in some areas of campus were unusually high immediately caused the director of operations at the school to change the fresh air intake cycle method. At one point during the conference, Professor Jin Wang, the program chair of ICBDE, approached Tong to express his utter amazement at the academic and social caliber of Concordia students. Dr. Tong recalls that what really stood out to Chairman Wang was the fact that they are high schoolers doing projects that are at the university standard, with presentation skills that were at par with, if not better than, some of the undergraduates.
Indeed, Dr. Tong’s class seems to go beyond just learning basic facts and concepts on a textbook in traditional classrooms. While he does point out that the course encourages development of great additional skills and experience that often catches the eye of university admission officers, Dr. Tong’s overarching goal for the course is to let students “gain an overall appreciation for the potential in data and to use the skill in looking for patterns to see what else these pieces of information can lead to. It’s almost like a philosophy.”
Samuel X., a current high school senior who took the course last year, had based his Big Data capstone project on analyzing political biases in news. At the beginning of this school year, he came back to Tong’s office with exciting updates on the expansion of his project: during summer, Samuel had decided to complete a full research paper to IEEE standards on the use of natural language processing in discerning journalism’s political biases — and he won 2nd place for his presentation at YouthMaker Science and Technology Fair. Recounting this story, Dr. Tong is jubilant: “It’s not even just about the award itself, but the fact that he took the initiative to use what the course taught him and take it so many steps forward that impresses me,” he says. Through learning analytics, students are opened to more possibilities in our constantly evolving digital world, a privilege that in turn empowers them to go further in their learning. Samuel is now looking into majoring in a data science branch of electrical engineering in college.
Bringing this successful opportunity to Concordia, Dr. Tong had to essentially create the course from scratch. Back then, big data courses had been mostly limited to college graduates so there were almost no resources, curriculum, or textbooks available for high school classrooms. Luckily, a student shared the same passion for big data as Tong and the idea for a new course began taking its roots when Tong attended a particular parent-teacher conference with that student. It turns out, the parent of the student was the Vice President of Asia Pacific IBM, who linked up Tong with data analytics professors in China and allowed him to use the academic version of Watson Analytics, which even Chinese IBM engineers had not been able to access directly online. The student and his family played a crucial role in helping to kick start the course in 2014, allowing Concordia to become the first international school in the world to offer Big Data education.
“A diamond in its raw form is worth really little,” says Dr. Tong. “If I walk into a mine, I wouldn’t know if I stepped one. But when the diamond is polished, cut, and packaged in a nice manner, only then would you realize its true worth," he explains. "The same thing goes for data. Unless you data-wrangle it, you would not be able to extract its full value.” In our world today, “data is like the new oil.”
The key, Dr. Tong believes, is in being able to leverage this growing resource to explore new possibilities. Recently, he caught up with the student who co-founded the course at Concordia. The student, upon arrival at UC Berkeley, found that the university didn’t offer a big data course. So, he told Dr. Tong, he decided to create a data science course and even proceeded to major in the field. In this way, Concordia has made an unmistakable contribution by enabling an alum to take his own place amongst a community pioneering our world’s transition toward data-driven discovery and decision-making.
Katherine D. is a passionate and creative journalist
in Concordia's Applied Learning Journalism program.
For livecaptured sessions from the 6th international big Data and Analytics Edcon, explore this feature on CitizenC.