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3 Undergrads Walk Into a Room . . .

November 13, 2012

A Computer Science major, an Information Management major and a Marketing major sit in a classroom in Montana…No, It’s not the beginning of an epic joke; it happens to be a glimpse into the first ever undergraduate IBM InfoSphere Streams course.

The University of Montana, with the help of IBM and local big data analytics company, TerraEchos, announced the class late in the summer. Taught by Eric Tangedahl, the course has become the hottest course in the school. It filled up within the first week and produced a very long waiting list that just won’t stop growing. Three students, Hannah Heilcher, Yuri Difort and Nathan Sponberg, took a little time to give IBM a dash of student perspective on their big endeavor.

Since the course has never been taught, in the entire world, as an undergraduate course, what was your first perception of the course?

Yuri, Computer Science major: I got an email about it, actually. It was this summer, right around when that article came out in Missoulian. It got me thinking about getting more involved in this stuff. I signed up that night.

Hannah, Marketing major: I had NO idea what the course was or what the subject is. I got an email from an advisor that told me to sign up for this course. I did what I was told.

Nathan, Information Management major: Alex [Alex Philp, Founder of TerraEchos] came and talked to [our class] even before the course was offered last semester. During the summer I picked up the newspaper, and it was a lucky day because it was about UM offering a streams course. I went home and was the first person to sign up from Information Management.

So before the class, did you have an idea about big data, or even stream computing, for that matter?

Yuri: I didn’t, the article in the Missoulian didn’t give much substance. It intrigued me. It tied into my interest in the expansion of data in the digital world and IT technology. This class was a good way to learn more.

And now what is your perception of Streams?

Yuri: I think a lot of people are coming at it as, ‘oh, we can make a lot of money off it,’ which is great. For me, that is only a byproduct of it. The thing that really intrigues me is the potential for expanding our understanding and use of data.

Hannah: It’s so intense. I didn’t realize how our world was changing – just in terms of data. There is so much more to learn, and so much potential that it just makes the class that much more exciting.

The course is designed for Computer Science, Business and Mathematics majors alike. How does this work and how do you like it?

Nathan: We are put into teams of all three, so everyone brings their own expertise to the table. For me, in business, if I can learn SQL then I can go into a company and understand different teams and work with engineers to form a sounder business strategy.

Hannah: I love it! We are all different personalities. I’m the loud one. Together though, we perform better. A computer science major might solve the problem, but the business major figures out an application. The integration makes it seem so much more advanced. It’s more like the real world than a classroom. We have to figure it out, together.

Yuri: This class is fairly technical. If you didn’t have any programming experience, you might struggle. It’s indicative of how IT has permeated into a lot of fields in our society. And it helps me look at a business perspective in my work. It promotes collaboration across company departments.

Had you worked with a computing language before?

Yuri: Yes. I had used Java, Visual Basic and some other higher order programming.

Nathan: Visual Basic, just a little.

Hannah: Barely, just from my first MIS class. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. When you figure out that right code, or you hear a classmate go, ‘YEAH,’ you know that they just had that moment. The moment that schoolwork becomes knowledge, that’s a great moment.

What is the hardest part of the course?

Nathan: The first lab, mainly because somewhere in the data process I had missed something. I had to go back three times to get it right!

What is your perception of the class as the first undergraduate course in this field?

Nathan: It’s one of the reasons I took the course!

Hannah: We are really lucky. If [TerraEchos] hadn’t been so successful, we wouldn’t be able to have such an amazing opportunity. We are on the brink of new business processes, new healthcare applications – we are ahead of the curve, and it’s a privilege. That’s what makes this course so electrifying.

When you think about what you are doing, do you have expectations from taking this course?

Nathan: There is great opportunity. If I had the chance to work with companies like IBM or TerraEchos, it would be great.

Yuri: I find myself not being able to stop thinking about the possibilities this course could give me. It’s almost overwhelming. Every time I learn something new, it’s like, I could apply that to this! Or this! OR THIS! Once you learn an application, such as speech recognition, that knowledge can expand to so many other things. Any company that wants to be competitive needs some sort of strategy with these applications.

So, since your interview will be posted on IBM Big Data Blog, is there anything you want to say to IBM or their followers?

Nathan: Thank you for providing this class. Learning this makes me feel that I can go anywhere in the world and be productive. I love that IBM saw that Missoula has potential, in our school and in our students. I’ve never heard of IBM recruiting at UM, but I think it would be cool.

Yuri: Yea, I would agree with Nathan. I feel, though, I am just getting a taste of it. There is so much more, I want more classes, more than just one semester.

Hannah: Come hire us! …and Thank You!


 

Watch this interview with Eric Tangedahl, the course instructor, and Alex Philp, who conceived the course.