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Investigating and Interpreting Data: USMA’s New Applied Statistics and Data Science Major

By Keith J. Hamel, WPAOG staff


In August 2016, Major General John Baker and Lieutenant Colonel Steven Henderson ’94 published an article in ARMY magazine titled, “Making the Case for Army Data Scientists.”

In the article, Baker and Henderson posit that the Army needs to leverage the exponentially growing amount of data it collects in order to maintain a competitive advantage over this nation’s adversaries. Doing this, they write, “will involve educating, equipping and retaining a new breed of expert leaders” in three essential disciplines: domain expertise (operations and intelligence), mathematics, and computer science. “No formal Army personnel system is necessarily producing someone who is steeped in all three components of data science,” Baker and Henderson determine. “But we need to move swiftly and boldly to commission Army data scientists to lead this effort.”

While Baker and Henderson’s argument was finding an audience, West Point’s Department of Mathematical Sciences (MATH) was independently laying the groundwork to make the article’s recommendation a reality. Statistics had already been part of the MATH curriculum for some time, and about a decade ago, the department launched an Applied Statistics minor. “As our Statistics efforts have grown, and as the need for data scientists and statisticians has grown, within both the Army and society at large, we came to the conclusion that now is the time to establish a new major that focuses on these topics,” says Assistant Professor Lieutenant Colonel Nick Clark ’02. According to Colonel Krista Watts ’96, Director of MATH’s Operations Research and Statistics Program, Clark was the one that “put the nuts and bolts together” for USMA’s new Applied Statistics and Data Science (ASDS) major, which was approved by the Dean’s Office in December 2018 and first offered to the cadets in the Class of 2022.

Cadets at West Point During COVID-19 Quarantine

West Point’s Civil Engineering program, housed within the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering (CME), one of eight ABET-accredited engineering programs at the Academy, is ranked as the #2 undergraduate civil engineering program by U.S. News & World Report. Cadets in the program take a minimum of two electives from a list of various offerings in the The new major starts with statistics—the first of its six “student outcomes” is “Demonstrate competence in computational and statistical thinking”—but it takes a different approach from the deep dives into probability theory typically found in other mathematic statistics programs. “Instead,” says Clark, “we focus more on taking data and learning from it, as opposed to doing the integrals and the calculations in which the pure mathematician would be interested.”

Cadets at West Point During COVID-19 QuarantineThe ASDS major is also unique in its interdisciplinary approach. In addition to the six MATH courses required for the major, cadets must also take elective courses in a variety of accompanying disciplines: Computer Science, Cyber Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Information Technology and Systems Engineering. Not only does this interdisciplinary approach match Baker and Henderson’s concept in their call for “a new breed of expert leaders,” but it is also beneficial given the large amounts of complex data available today (2.5 quintillion bytes generated per day according to one source). The ability to mine this heterogeneous data in order to make predictions and data-influenced decisions is aided by having an interdisciplinary background. And making predictions and data-influenced decisions—or, according to Clark, answering the “so what” question—is the ultimate goal of data analysis. “From day one, we instruct cadets on the need to convey to an audience what the significance of their analytic model is,” says Clark. Thus, while no additional humanities courses beyond the core are required for the major, the ASDC is interdisciplinary in learning communication skills via math as well. “If you can’t communicate your results to a client, a commander, or a colleague, you might as well have not done the analysis at all,” says Clark.

ASDS majors get practice performing data analysis on real Army issues. One current cadet is working on body composition study for the Army, researching the correlation between differences in soldiers’ body measurements and the likelihood of suffering a catastrophic injury in Basic Training (one that would require separation from the Army). Another one of ASDS’s current senior capstone projects is feature extraction, which it is performing in conjunction with the Army’s Special Operations Command. “Since we stood up the major, we have talked to Army Futures Command and the Special Operations Command, both of which have said they want to partner with MATH and do some research projects,” says Clark. In this project, ASDS majors are working to develop a classification system so that a computer can analyze a satellite photo and identify its subject (is that a target or not?). “The computer is just looking at the photo as ones and zeros,” says Clark. “It’s a giant matrix, that turns into a vector, that turns into a classification problem that applied statisticians love to work on.” In the classroom, ASDS majors study the algorithms needed to allow a computer to perform the above work. They also learn the math supporting these algorithms and how to program and implement new algorithms on a computer. Designing and constructing new processes for data modeling and programing (or coding) is what raises MATH’s ASDS major above common data analysis. “Applying statistical modeling and data science skills to unique problems is a thread that runs through the entire ASDS curriculum,” says Clark. “The projects that faculty and cadets within the major are working on have relevancy to the Army today.”

Cadets at West Point During COVID-19 QuarantineMATH’s ASDS program is also relevant to the Army because of a “train-the-trainer” model it is using to certify West Point junior faculty members as data scientists. On study days, faculty members from various academic departments, again showing ASDS’s interdisciplinary nature, gather for a series of classes focused on data science. With guidance from Clark, two junior MATH faculty members, both Class of 2008 graduates, lead lessons on applied statistics and data science, showing how the field has evolved from the time when the other faculty attended graduate school to the state-of-the-art computing methods used today. “They know the research, they read the articles, they determine what other faculty members need to know to stay current,” says Clark. “They are also teaching them coding skills, teaching them how to do distributive computing, and teaching them how to operationalize the latest and greatest data science techniques so that they can stay on top of such a rapidly changing field.” Those who complete the course receive an additional skill identifier related to Functional Area 49 (Operations Research/Systems Analysis). “It’s really a two-forone benefit,” says Clark: “MATH gets a bench of faculty members who can teach ASDS classes and advise cadets one-onone with their research projects, and the Army gets trained data scientists who can analyze data and make data-informed decisions down range.”

Right now, the Army is using data analytics to gain an advantage in everything from recruiting warriors for the force to viewing the modern battlefield. But, according to the defense industry publication Defensetech, the entire U.S. military is having trouble finding people to mine all the data it collects in all these areas. “There is a giant sucking sound for people with an ASDS skill set,” says Clark. “If we do this right, three years from now we will have graduates who will be force multipliers when they are commissioned, doing things that the typical second lieutenant can’t do, and we will be sending our rotating faculty back to the Army as certified data scientists, and both groups will have senior leaders jumping at the chance to tap their skills.”

Printed in West Point Magazine, Winter 2020, all rights reserved.