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UCalgary Econ students to tackle real-world business problems, for free

University of Calgary economics students in their final year are getting ready to tackle some of most challenging problems in business.

Returning this year to the UCalgary curriculum is the Digital Economics Capstone class, which matches highly skilled Econ majors with businesses looking for help.

The help is free, albeit with a catch: The challenges businesses face must be data based.

“The idea of the class is that for the partners, it’s a way to try something out, see if it will work, and then if it works they can put somebody on that full time and implement it themselves,” said Dr. Benjamin Crost, who is teaching the class this year.

“They get this for free. And then if it doesn’t work out they didn’t spend any money, they only had to meet with a group of students a few times throughout the semester, and they’re not losing anything from it.”

The capstone class, which has been run for several years by the university, has produced solutions for a wide range of local, national and international organizations and industries, including the City of Calgary, real estate companies, energy traders, and digital marketers.

He said that almost any business or organization has problems or challenges that could be addressed by capstone teams.

“We have no limitation on what the company does,” Crost said.

Dr. Crost will be running a webinar on Nov. 8 at 12 p.m. for interested businesses and organizations. Webinar access can be RVSPed by emailing Dr. Crost at the University of Calgary.

Econ students helping companies at home, and abroad

In the past year, student groups tackled some complex and expensive problems for industries in Canada and in the United States.

One group developed a solution to predict solar energy generation, in order to facilitate renewable certificate trading. It allowed the major energy producer to help meet their portfolio standards to trade renewable certificates.

“What’s really important is to know how much renewable energy is being produced in a given month, because then you know how many certificates are out there, and you know how expensive they’re going to be,” said Dr. Crost.

The students used web scraping of weather stations in Maryland, along with advanced coding, econometric, and artificial intelligence skills to develop a predictive machine learning model.

That model was then used as an input into the trading strategies of energy traders.

“I think it went really well that over the course of the three months, they went from having pretty poor predictions to having pretty accurate predictions of generation,” said Dr. Crost.

“And one of the students from that group actually went on to do an internship with the company over the summer, and he’s been working with them since then.”

Another group, working with an asset management firm in Toronto, were able to develop a portfolio optimization tool that was comparable to the ones that proprietary companies charge tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for, Crost said.

“They were basically just interested in how different asset classes performed during times of high inflation, and [the students] correctly predicted that high inflation was here to stay last year,” he said.

“In a similar idea, the students put together data on the historical performance of different assets, and then they plugged this into a portfolio optimization model that they basically made from scratch—there’s companies that charge a lot of money for these proprietary portfolio optimization products, and we did it from scratch and actually ended up having results that are pretty similar to what one would have gotten from a very expensive proprietary model.”

Students learn from real world data

Dr. Crost said that the capstone class was “incredibly useful” for his students.

“It’s a great experience, and it’s a great way to learn about what data work actually looks like in the real world because they take classes on data analysis with the professors here, but we might not have a 100 per cent accurate idea of how data analysis is actually done in companies right now,” Crost said.

“I think that’s incredibly valuable just to see what the kinds of questions are that companies are actually interested in, what the kinds of processes are that they use, and what the kind of data that they use.”

As part of the capstone projects, students work on either publicly accessible data, or data that has been anonymized from companies.

Dr. Crost said that he is able to work with companies that are concerned with proprietary data in order to help them prepare data sets that work for the university class.

“We can definitely talk about ways to scramble the data or anonymize it in some way that we can use it, and you still get the answer that you want without having problems with confidentiality,” he said.

Advanced skills from employable grads

For the students, said Dr. Crost, the experience of working on the capstone project helps them to become employed post graduation.

“It’s something that they can put on their CV, in a job interview they can talk about it and it’s something that can set you apart against a lot of other people who are applying for the same job,” he said.

Among those skills are advanced skills in econometrics, strong statistical skills, data methodology, and computer programming. One of the prerequisites for the class is that students take computer language training in programming Python.

“There’s always students in the class who are just stronger than the average economic students in coding, and we try to assign them equally across the project groups so that basically every group has one person who is a strong coder, and then the rest of them are strong economists,” Dr. Crost said.

He said that every year a handful of the capstone students will be hired directly by the companies they worked with on projects.

And as for businesses, it helps them to find the right people to fill positions.

“There’s definitely a lot of the partners also participate in this program with an eye towards recruiting,” he said.

“They can see who are the good ones, or who are the ones that would fit into our company culture, and then if the project goes well, they sort of get first dibs on trying to recruit them.”