College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Data Science Extravaganza Targets Top Learners

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UKZN’s Women in Analytics and Dudes in Data event has become a highly anticipated and sought after happening for high school learners.

The School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS) hosted the science extravaganza online, with pupils participating from various schools in KwaZulu-Natal.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Professor Albert Modi welcomed more than 80 guests, speakers, teachers and top-performing Grade 11 students to the virtual event after a musical item from Barnyard star, Jerryn Fosteras.

Modi said he hoped learners who chose UKZN for their Higher Education would experience positive outcomes from the day’s programme and that advice given would encourage them to keep achieving greatness and broadcast the value of data science.

Dean and Head of the SMSCS and brainchild of the event Professor Delia North said the programme was designed in such a way that current postgraduate students and professionals working in the field of data science had the opportunity to speak about their experiences with the aim of inspiring young adults in their career choices.

‘At UKZN, we link very closely with industry because we want to make sure our programmes are aligned with the needs of industry and deliver the kind of graduates who are needed in the workplace,’ said North.

She encouraged students to pick a starting point of versatility, look for programmes that support qualifications in high demand and to choose wisely, based on their passions. She also explained the structure of data science degrees at UKZN.

North thanked industry partners and sponsors in attendance for their support including Quantify my Future, the South African Graduate Employers Association (SAGEA), the International Statistical Institute, UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, and SAS (previously Statistical Analysis System).

Keynote speaker Professor Jennifer Priestley, who is Director of the Centre for Statistics and Analytical Services at Kennesaw State University in the United States, encouraged the youngsters to study computational disciplines to help propel their careers and better equip them to contribute to society. ‘I encourage you to study computational science and mathematics and statistics computer science – these skills will serve you well,’ said Priestley.

Another keynote speaker Mr Murray de Villiers, who is the senior manager for education and academic programmes for Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA)at SAS, stressed the importance of data scientists – and also being a well-rounded data scientist aware of the importance of soft skills. ‘You will learn about subject matter, domain expertise, creative problem solving and project management and all of those things known as analytics hard skills, but you also have to create the ability within yourself to understand what’s going on – that involves soft skills,’ said de Villiers.

He explained the necessity to integrate and mesh the various learning areas in order to be a well-rounded data scientist, saying the top 10 jobs on LinkedIn all demanded very strong soft skills. ‘So it is worth your while to look at your soft skill set.’

The students then moved into breakaway rooms where they were addressed by UKZN Statistics alumni.

Alumni Ms Danielle Roberts, Ms Riona Arjoon and Ms Thandakazi Jantjies spoke to the Women in Analytics group.

Roberts is a lecturer in Statistics on UKZN’s Westville campus who has just completed her PhD in Statistics; Arjoon studied Statistics at UKZN, completing her honours degree before going on to work at Stats SA and is now living in The Netherlands where she works as a Data Scientist; while Jantjies completed her BSc Honours degree (Statistics) on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus in 2020 and is currently doing her Master’s degree in Data Science on the Westville campus.

The three speakers provided a wealth of information and were tangible examples of how women in science are making their mark.

The Dudes in Data students were addressed by Professor Shaun Ramroop, Mr Dane Bax and Mr Aaron Naidu.

Ramroop, a professor of Statistics on the Pietermaritzburg campus, has a PhD in Statistics and was the former academic leader of Statistics at UKZN. The accomplished academic, top class teacher and researcher encouraged and advised learners to build on their knowledge incrementally, implement a good learning system, conduct themselves professionally, and to seek assistance when needed.

Bax, who has BCom degree and an MBA in Finance and Economics, is currently doing a PhD in Statistics at UKZN. He lives on the Isle of Man, where he is the lead Data Scientist for Microgaming.

Naidu, a second year Data Science student at UKZN, spoke to the boys about life as a student and what the degree entails.

Mr Jeremy Beukes of SAGEA spoke about his organisation’s Quantify Your Future initiative.

Beukes said SAGEA was excited to be partnering with UKZN in its new suite of data science programmes, and thanked several organisations for sponsoring prizes for this initiative. Quantify your Future sponsored the Takealot vouchers given away on the day.

Mr Andre Zitzke of SAS said UKZN was one of Africa’s premier institutions for studying data science, which was important as the future became more data driven.

Professor Temesgen Zewotir – professor in Statistics on UKZN’s Westville campus and one of the two foundational developers of the Data Science programme at UKZN – closed the online event.

Words: Swasti Maney

Image: Supplied