How to become a data-oriented thinker and problem-solver in the Certificate in Data Analytics

“The world has become much more data-oriented,” says John Lapinski, Faculty Director of the Penn LPS Online Certificate in Data Analytics. “To be able to understand data and use it productively has become a requirement for people doing their own research. More importantly, once you leave Penn and enter into the professional world, you need to be able to use these tools to do your job—or even just to be a productive citizen.”

As Director of the Elections Unit at NBC News, as well as a director of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program and co-director of the Fels Institute of Government at Penn, Lapinski lives in two worlds. He drew on his dual interests in academic theory and practical applications to start Penn’s Program for Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES), an undergraduate research program where Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences students study the science of election research and can minor in Survey Research and Data Analytics. “One of the things we like to bring to the classroom is fresh ideas and fresh data to analyze,” Lapinski explains. “At NBC, we’re doing real-world work. We’re making projections. We are doing the exit polls. We’re interviewing literally tens of thousands of people a month with a big online tracking poll. We bring that type of data into the classroom and show them step by step how that works.”

When Penn LPS Online offered an opportunity to reach working professionals and other nontraditional students with unique professional goals in mind, online data analytics courses seemed like a natural next step. “I thought that the types of tools and skills that we were giving Penn undergraduates would be equally valuable—maybe even more valuable—to the population that Penn LPS Online is serving,” says Lapinski. “The courses we’re teaching really combine the theoretical and the practical, and that was something we felt there was a lot of need and demand for.”

Penn LPS Online’s Certificate in Data Analytics includes four sequential courses that incrementally build data literacy, even if you don’t have a background in math or science when you begin. The Penn LPS Online courses are similar to the PORES curriculum for College of Arts and Sciences undergraduates, and the two programs are closely linked: not only are the certificate instructors and administrators affiliated with data analytics at Penn, but certificate teaching assistants are trained through PORES. The Certificate in Data Analytics is designed to provide a strong foundation in data analytics that Penn LPS Online students can apply to their unique workplaces or pet projects. “That’s what differentiates our program,” says Lapinski. “We train students how to be data-oriented thinkers and problem-solvers.”

What can you do with data analytics?

“The certificate is a data analytics program, not a data science program,” explains Lapinski. The difference, he says, is that data analytics emphasizes qualitative as well as quantitative thinking. Data science methods include manipulating large data sets and applying inductive reasoning to look at relationships and correlations in the data. Penn trains data analytics students in data science techniques, but doesn’t stop there. “It’s one thing to train someone how to technically do something. It’s another to train them how to know when to use these tools in certain situations,” says Lapinski. “We want to teach data analytics students how to think about and approach problems in life or in a professional environment. They may not inherently be data problems, but we train them to think about how data can help them answer those problems.”

Samantha Sangenito, a data analyst who teaches in Penn’s Fels Institute of Government and Political Science Department as well as the Certificate in Data Analytics, agrees. “When I say data science, I mean coding in its purest form,” she clarifies. “Data analytics is knowing what to do with that information: How can I use that to make a decision? How can I use it to persuade an audience? How can I implement this in my work? We are constantly talking about the decision making, not just the coding.”

Data-oriented thinking and decision-making can be useful in almost any field, and students in the Data Analytics Certificate come from a wide range of professional backgrounds and career levels. “No matter where you end up in life, career-wise, there is going to be data and data sets associated with that profession,” adds Andrew Arenge, Director of Operations for the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program and Penn's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies. “There have been unique data sets to deal with in every single job I’ve ever been in.” Arenge has taken on an administrative role with the Certificate in Data Analytics, coordinating with instructors and teaching assistants across all four courses to ensure consistency and continuity. “We had a lot of discussions about making sure that the amount of work we were expecting a student to do in that specific week was both rigorous enough for the University, but not so much that a person taking the courses part-time wouldn’t be successful,” he says.

Among her part-time Penn LPS Online students, Sangenito has taught a law center employee who used his emerging data analytics skills to fact-check large sets of legal data and ensure his team was hitting certain benchmarks. Another certificate student held a high-level position in a city department; she managed a team of data scientists, and wanted the technical background to understand more about her employees’ work. “We see that a lot,” comments Sangenito. “Data science is new. For people who are further along in their careers, these tools didn’t exist when they were going through the ranks.” At the same time, she says, there are many young or emerging professionals in the certificate classes who may have an undergraduate or graduate degree, but are looking to enhance their resumes with hard skills. “They want to brush up on quantitative skills because they see this is the way of the world. You’re going to have to make comparisons between groups, you’re going to have to make sure your accounts are in order. You’re going to have to understand percentages,” she says.

That’s a good thing, she qualifies. “We’re losing bias. We’re constantly trying to chase improvement, better results, and data is just the way to do that,” she says. “When people make decisions that are not data-oriented, their own biases enter the equation. When you’re looking at data, it’s a much more transparent decision-making process.”

Getting started in data analytics

Any Penn LPS Online student who has completed the Certificate in Data Analytics can tell you two things about it: it’s an intensive course of study, and there is usually a waitlist to get into classes. As it happens, those two things are related. “This material is challenging, no matter what your background is,” says Sangenito. “But, we want to set everybody up for success.”

The challenge of learning data analytics is twofold: for one, students learn the computer language R for statistical programming and analysis. “Learning R is basically like learning a new language, and getting over the hump can be quite steep,” notes Arenge. For another, the emphasis on qualitative problem-solving and flexible thinking requires opportunities for discussion, reflection, observing best practices, and reflection. To set students up for successfully meeting those challenges, the data analytics program keeps course sizes small. “The way you get people to think like that is by talking them through examples,” says Lapinski. “That’s why the personal interaction with our instructors is so important.”

Course instructors in the Certificate in Data Analytics are social scientists at Penn; in live virtual meetings and class discussions, they can share examples from their own scholarship analyzing data to understand social attitudes, behaviors, and challenges. For additional support, classes are staffed with teaching assistants trained in PORES. Assistant Director Sandy Vogel helps place PORES research fellows and data analytics minors as assistants for the Penn LPS Online courses, and has noticed that the opportunity to explain data science and reasoning helps deepen their own mastery of the subject. “It’s great to see students take on a new role as a course assistant where they are not only reinforcing the data skills they know, they’re helping someone else learn those skills,” she observes. “We have a whole process to train those undergraduate students, to have them come up through the ranks of PORES and help us,” adds Lapinski. “These students are extremely talented. You’re not going to be able to hire an assistant like that off the street.”

Once a Penn LPS Online student has enrolled in the Certificate in Data Analytics and has been placed in DATA 1010: Introduction to Data Analytics, there is one more step before they can begin the first course in the sequence. Prior to the start of their term of entry, DATA 101 students are required to complete a pre-course module that asks them to download programming software and bring external data into the program. The program team estimates that this process should take 3-5 hours, and students are welcome to contact teaching assistants for questions and support. The purpose of this module, explains Sangenito, is to help students assess their interest in continuing the course. “We find that if you can complete this task, you can get through everything else,” she says. “Everyone can do it if they invest the time, so it’s more for them to decide if they want to spend that amount of time on the class.”

“Data analytics courses are usually a little bit more on the difficult side for students, but achievable,” Lapinski agrees. “Students feel that they have accomplished a lot when they finish the courses, because they really can see what they can do that they couldn’t have done in the beginning. That’s not true for every type of course that you can take.”

Developing the skills to succeed in data analytics

One of the few Penn LPS Online certificates that must be taken in order, the four data analytics courses build on themes and concepts sequentially. DATA 101 covers the key topics in data science, including cleaning data, manipulating data, visualizing data, and working with geographic data. “We introduce all these topics and give students just enough that they can put them into practice in a real-world setting,” says Sangenito. She notes that some of the students in DATA 101 are Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) students who are taking the course to fulfill their foundational requirement in quantitative analysis, so they may or may not continue taking data courses. “DATA 101 surveys the landscape and asks, ‘Okay, is this something you’re interested in?’” she adds. But even before the course concludes, she has noticed that DATA 101 students start posing questions about their side projects after just a few weeks of study. “I love to see students start recognizing how they could apply data analytics at work,” she says.

The subsequent courses go in-depth on both methods and applications. In DATA 2100: Intermediate Data Analysis, students dig into the opinion research process, using data cleaning processes to effectively and efficiently analyze thousands of survey responses with minimal spot-checking for accuracy. In DATA 3100: Introduction to Statistical Methods, they’ll sharpen their quantitative tools and techniques. “If you don’t have a strong mathematical background, you’re making pictures,” says Sangenito. “You need to have that taught by somebody who knows their stuff.”

In the final course, DATA 401: Advanced Topics in Data Analytics, students have mastered enough material to build a web application. “Basically, they build a user interface. They create a structure where someone who doesn’t know R can click a button and execute code behind the scenes,” explains Sangenito. The content of the application is up to the student; the point is to produce content for a professional portfolio, or a tool that can be used right away—for example, a certificate student who works in the School District of Philadelphia designed an app to find trends and patterns in school records (such as school suspensions) by geography. But beyond the practical application, these advanced projects serve a similar purpose as becoming a teaching assistant does for the PORES research fellows. “It’s really exciting, because the student is the expert now,” says Sangenito.

To get to that point, the data analytics team proposes, a student just needs the desire and commitment to do the work. “It’s a huge step to say you want to go back and continue your education,” says Vogel. “We want to make sure the students feel supported, not just with our faculty and course assistants, but also the community of learners that they’re with, so they know they’re not alone.”

“You get out of it what you put into it,” Sangenito agrees. “You’re going to need support, but we have the infrastructure at Penn to be able to do that. People can come to this wherever they are, and we will meet them there and take them forward.”

“You don’t get that in other programs,” adds Lapinski. “I don't think any other program is quite like ours.”

To read more about the benefits of Penn LPS Online certificates, visit our feature: “What are certificates—and why do working professionals increasingly find them worthwhile?


Apply Today

Ready to apply to Penn LPS Online?

Apply Now

Learn more about Penn LPS Online