Capstone Projects: The Power of Learning by Doing

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 Data Society         
machine learning
  September 2022           
machine learning        Blog
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“But how would I use this?” ask students of all ages. This familiar question frequently echoes, in various forms, because it raises a valid point. In the absence of context and disconnected from real-world applications, new information can be more challenging to digest, process, and use. This insight into learning holds no less true for professionals acquiring new skills than for school children studying the three Rs.  

Bringing Knowledge to Life

The interplay between theory and practice is essential in building an authentic understanding of a subject. How this dynamic shapes educational experiences can make the difference between comprehending concepts only on paper and applying them toward observable results. Therefore, learners across levels and disciplines can benefit from applied learning techniques such as capstone projects to grasp and develop confidence in new knowledge and skills.

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Engaging learners through active participation, capstone projects amplify the relevance of course content to the issues that affect their day-to-day functions. Capstone projects help learners absorb and retain knowledge by immersing them in the process of answering a question, inviting them to interact with a subject rather than receive information passively. A 2013 study of learning outcomes among undergraduate students in STEM courses found that students who engaged in active learning performed better than their peers who experienced instruction only through the traditional lecture format. “The application time and struggle is just as important as the classroom experiences,” notes Data Society Senior Vice-President of Learning Meghan Cipperley. 

Using Real-World Data to Achieve Real-World Progress

In the professional world, capstone projects create effective learning experiences by giving learners opportunities to tackle challenges familiar to them in their daily work. These projects help learners cultivate new skills and knowledge while delivering measurable value for their organizations. Capstone projects enable learners to address unique organizational needs in workforce training by combining powerful new skills with industrial knowledge and domain expertise. Cipperly describes the role capstones play in driving educational success, explaining:

It’s important, especially for adult learners, to have the chance to wrestle with problems and solutions on their own, leading them to their own decision frameworks for the environments they face. 

These culminating projects serve as engaging laboratories where learners can formulate and answer questions relevant to their real-world missions using their organizational data sets. The experience, according to Data Society Senior Data Science Instructor Vignesh Naraynaswamy, helps learners hone the skills they need to apply their learning to their work:

Capstone projects are an opportunity for students to wrestle with the challenges of real-world data science problems, such as: 

  • Formulating a meaningful research question. 
  • Wrangling messy data into a clean and usable format. 
  • Identifying appropriate methods. 
  • Validating and testing models. 
  • Interpreting analysis into actionable results.

Beyond skills, he continues, these projects help build learner confidence in their new skills. “Additionally,” he notes, “capstones provide an opportunity for students to showcase their hard work to their colleagues and management through a presentation and final deliverable.”

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Data Society places capstone projects at the forefront of its data science training programs across industries and sectors to bring these benefits to learners and their organizations. For example, Data Society also worked with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to deliver The Federal Data Science Training Program, a hybrid of asynchronous and virtual instructor-led training sessions that generated capstone projects across 20 agencies. The diverse projects learners undertook through these programs allow them to apply new skills to projects tackling challenges of considerable national import. In addition, a Data Society training program for professional services employees resulted in over 50 proposed data science applications they could implement in their organization. 

Using Capstone Projects to Deliver Immediate Results for Data Society’s Clients

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Data Society has worked with clients spanning the spectrum of industries to facilitate several fascinating capstone projects. These efforts have produced a wide range of effective solutions, such as:

  • A clustering algorithm using Python and PySpark to perform sentiment analysis on tweets to measure public sentiment about the war in Ukraine. 
  • An analysis using text mining and text search on annual tribal consultations to draw insights about the tribal homicide rate and inform the allocation of resources accordingly.
  • A machine learning model in Python using a large telecommunications company’s account data to predict customer churn.
  • A predictive modeling platform using supervised learning algorithms to identify counties most likely to experience a higher rate of opioid overdoses. 
  • Supervised machine learning classifier models using census data to predict vehicle access based on food access in given communities.
  • A predictive analysis of Crash Report Sampling System (CCRS) data to predict the severity of motor vehicle crashes.

Data Society’s team of instructional professionals has seen capstone projects produce impressive outcomes for individual learners and their organizations. Through these efforts, learners have strengthened critical skills and brought value and savings to their organizations. Examples include:

  • Identifying new opportunities for analyzing data and automating repetitive processes.
  • Using Python to develop tools and solutions for improved efficiency. 
  • Understanding data storytelling best practices.
  • Creating compelling data visualizations.
  • Establishing a shared data vocabulary that enables personnel across different areas to communicate more effectively about data principles and data science algorithms.


Putting New Knowledge to Work

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To make meaningful use of workforce training, the self-assurance that comes with successfully solving real challenges is arguably nearly as crucial as having the right skill set. Capstone projects help Data Society’s learners experience the sense of accomplishment their hard work merits. In addition, capstone projects give learners tangible solutions they can put immediately to work in their professional lives, providing a clear answer to the age-old question, “But how would I use this?”


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Data Society provides customized, industry-tailored data science training solutions—partnering with organizations to educate, equip, and empower their workforce with the skills to achieve their goals and expand their impact.

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