Babson College Prepares Students for Success with Data Analytics

Babson College - ranked one of the top business schools within the United States - is well-known for its entrepreneurial focus. Babson’s undergraduate, MBA, and MS students, as well as its executive education clients gain exposure to data analytics tools and business analytics concepts to help them identify opportunities and succeed in their careers.

Dessislava Pachamanova, Associate Professor of Operations Research at Babson, teaches both undergraduate and MBA students the fundamentals of data science and business analytics. Beginning in fall 2013, all undergraduates and MBA students concentrating in business analytics are required to take core courses on database management and data analytics — and data visualization with Tableau is an integral part.

“The goal of my class is to teach students how to recognize problems that can be addressed with analytics and how to identify the correct tools for the type of analytics problem they have,” says Pachamanova. Understanding that not every use case can be covered in courses, Pachamanova and her colleagues are looking to give students a foundational knowledge of to prepare them for facing different kinds of business situations.

To illustrate the contrast of different visualization tools, Pachamanova provides students with a basic exercise in the core data analytics course. This also serves as an introduction to Tableau. She provides a dataset and asks simple questions: summarize sales by state, or break down profit by product category for a fictional company. The students complete these assignments and create visuals using Excel to present to the class.

After having the students do this analysis in Excel, Pachamanova contrasts it with the same analysis in Tableau.

“When they did the same thing in Tableau, they went deeper,” says Pachamanova. “I showed them that they can do multidimensional visualizations with color to reflect profit, and then numbers to reflect sales. One can create some of these visualizations in Excel, but the process can be clumsy. Students need to go through a pivot table first and then do extensive formatting to get the graphs to look good. And then, there are some visualizations that cannot be created with Excel. For example, when students needed to create a visualization showing company sales by state, many of them chose a bar chart in Excel. However, the bar chart is very difficult to read when there are 50 states displayed as categories. In contrast, the map of sales in each state we created with Tableau with a simple click-and-drag was so informative and aesthetically pleasing.”

Pachamanova considers this type of parallel exercise the best way to help students understand what tools to use for each task. “There are some data analysis tasks that do not require specialized software. But it’s important to create a contrast between the status quo and what specialized packages can do.”

Pachamanova says her students pick up Tableau very quickly on their own. “The first steps they take within Tableau – they get wowed – so they want to learn more. I literally covered Tableau in one class session. The students were able to do an exercise right away. In fact, the students were so enthusiastic about Tableau, that they did a lot of additional research on their own, learned about many of its advanced features, and used it both for their final projects in the class and for industry projects in which they were involved as part of other coursework” says Pachamanova.

Her students have also found that Tableau is a useful tool to have on-hand to prepare for conversations with professionals working in the field. She recently had a guest speaker from a leading consulting company speak to the class about Tableau. The big picture the students came away with is that by using a tool like Tableau in presentations to clients, they can answer questions on the fly. “If the client says ‘what if we change one little thing’,” Pachamanova recalls, “you can change the visualization to see or zero in on a particular category. This way, we can answer the client questions immediately instead of giving a static presentation and having to redo the analysis later to come back with an answer.”