By Brendan O'Shaughnessy (ND '93) | Spring 2024

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Fred Nwanganga’s class has Mendoza students teaching data science to local middle schoolers.

Notre Dame senior Daniel Ielusic introduced a lesson on data analysis with confidence to the middle school students staying after school at the Career Academy South Bend. 

Sr. Daniel Ielusic presenting to middle schoolers at South Bend Career Academy.He knew that the group’s activities during the March class would be fun. The middle schoolers in the bright cafeteria would be shooting a paper wad into a trash can in a game called “trashketball” and analyzing the attributes of Midwest roller coasters. But he’d struggled to find the best way to introduce new terms like “variable” and “observation.”

Two days earlier, Ielusic’s group had different graphics in a PowerPoint presentation to explain the difference between rows and columns, variables and observations. The students had sweated the details of how to best explain and visualize the complex terms involved in a computer program for data analysis. A classmate also suggested adding a timer on screen to help the middle schoolers track their progress on the roller coaster task.

Fred Nwanganga, an associate teaching professor of IT, Analytics, and Operations (ITAO) in the Mendoza College of Business, observed the close attention of the Career Academy middle schoolers like a proud parent. Nwanganga, who has more than 20 years of information technology leadership experience, teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in coding, machine learning and data analytics. 

“It’s amazing to me — every time. My students come in with something that’s half-baked on Monday, but by the time they deliver on Wednesday, I’m just like a giddy little kid because it’s so awesome,” he said. “This is exactly why I wanted to do this service part. Our students are actually leveraging what they’ve learned as they’re working with these young folks. It’s great to see.”

Nwanganga created the Early Bridges to Data Science class because he noticed that the math and science students learned in school focused narrowly on the physical world. The curricula in K-12 schools have not kept pace in providing educational opportunities to develop a data literacy that is culturally relevant and grounded in real-world applications. 

He felt there should be more attention on the math and science necessary for the virtual world of data and analytics, especially with the rapid advances in artificial intelligence. So Nwanganga decided to jump into the gap.

“What can I do in my space around this issue?” he said. “Let me see if I can actually reach out and engage with schools in the area and see if, maybe, I can somehow be a catalyst for change in some capacity.”


Teach the Teacher

The Early Bridges class was not Nwanganga’s first foray into data science for middle schoolers. He began modestly as the faculty advisor of the ITAO department’s student club, encouraging Notre Dame students to volunteer in local schools.

Fred Nwanganga works with students.Recognizing that a more robust effort was needed, he decided to engage with teachers in the trenches of local schools, who helped him identify his target range. “I wanted to work with students who were still open to the possibility of different career paths but had enough prior knowledge to learn fundamental data science concepts, so we chose middle school as the sweet spot,” he said.

Initially, Early Bridges was a “train the trainer” program aimed at middle school teachers. Nwanganga recruited three groups of about five teachers from three South Bend schools. He raised funds from a variety of sources: Career Academy, Center for Social Concerns, Industry Labs, ITAO and the Lucy Family Institute for Data & Society

The first cohort of 15 fellows came to campus in August 2022 for a three-day summer immersion boot camp to introduce them to statistical thinking, data management, visualization and foundational data science concepts. The capstone project invited them to design and develop lesson plans that they would integrate into science classes during the next academic year. ITAO colleagues Jennifer Waddell, Sharif Nijim, Brandon Erlacher and Seth Berry helped to teach the workshop.

The goal was to have the first cohort act as mentors to future cohorts from an expanding number of schools in the region. Together, they would build a library of age-appropriate lesson plans delving into data science.

While the teacher cohort thrived in the program, Nwanganga said two challenges arose. First, he said, as a college professor, he didn’t fully appreciate the time and resource burden that middle school teachers face. Also, building the program, including fundraising to provide the teachers a financial incentive to develop lesson plans, was too labor intensive to scale up.

“I feel bad that I didn’t realize how pressed they are until I worked with the teachers,” Nwanganga said. “So I decided to see if I can try out a different approach. What if I actually introduce a new course at Notre Dame and then have our students leverage their talents to help introduce data science?”


Peer Mentors

Nwanganga reached out to Tracey Ackerley, STEM instructional coach at Career Academy public charter school. As part of the first cohort of teachers, she was familiar with his goal of introducing data science to middle school students. He cited research showing that mentoring can be more effective if the two groups are closer in age.

Mendoza students work with middle schoolers to fill out activity sheets.Ackerley recruited 15 Career Academy students already involved in the Boys and Girls Club who were willing to stay after school on Wednesdays. She said the students were excited to be invited to belong to “an elite club.”

“The other kids are asking about it, and I tell them, ‘They’re working with data, or they’re going on this field trip,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, can I join?’” she said. “The excitement is spreading to our other kids about data.”

The content is helpful, Ackerley said, because young students can sometimes be intimidated by numbers and graphs and give up. Instead, the lessons take different approaches. For instance, one lesson was about how cereal commercials use data to convince people to make purchases.

“They’re looking at data from another perspective. Instead of just crunching numbers, they’re learning that data is everywhere and helps you analyze the world and make decisions,” Ackerley said. “It’s developing deeper thinking than just black and white. It’s a processing skill. Being a STEM person, I love it when they geek out.”

The Notre Dame students are split into five teams that develop lesson plans and work with specific middle schoolers all semester. A team develops a rough lesson plan for Monday’s class and receives feedback on how to improve their delivery. Another group taught the difference between mean, median and mode through an activity involving playing cards.

“We have a narrative or scenario that we set up, saying someone wants to do this or that but doesn’t know how, so how can we resolve this problem,” Nwanganga said. “Monday is the sausage-making day.”

A revised plan is due Tuesday night, and with the delivery on Wednesday, Nwanganga said he’s learned to be flexible because success is out of his control. “They are smart kids and have passion and really want to do good,” he said. “I’m always impressed.”

“For the middle schoolers, the value is significant,” he said. “They can see people who are not that much older than they are in a space that seems almost unattainable to them sometimes and connect with them as people.”


Teaching is Learning

Melissa Perotin (BBA ’24), a student from Florida, said the class puts a lot of time into the lesson plans. She was on the team that explored nutrition and cereal ads. The middle schoolers analyzed the data presented in the ads and either drew an ad or created a skit pushing their cereal.

A Mendoza student talks with a middle schooler about an activity sheet“We thought they were going to be really shy about it and wouldn’t want to get up and act in front of the class, and we were so wrong about that,” Perotin said. “The students were spouting facts about their cereal and pretending to be mascots and trying to make sure you bought their cereal, which was a lot of fun.”

A business analytics major who will work for PwC next year, Perotin said her classmates have improved their lessons as they’ve come to understand the middle schoolers better. And the process has forced her to learn the material better so that she can explain it.

“It’s one thing to learn it and to internalize it myself, but I feel that actually talking about it out loud solidifies my own understanding of things,” she said. “Especially when they hit me with questions, I have to come up with an answer for them right then and there.”

Nwanganga said connecting his students to local middle schoolers had two goals, the first of which mirrors Perotin’s comment.

“If they could break it down into little bits and give it to somebody else in a more digestible form, that to me is significant for their education because that’s going to be useful for them in their career,” Nwanganga said. “That’s an invaluable skill, because they will someday have to communicate with executives and other stakeholders who may not be as technical as they are.”

The other benefit is venturing outside the Notre Dame bubble. Nwanganga noted his students’ reaction when an administrator said that the only food some middle schoolers get is what the school provides. 

“My students may not always be aware that’s even a thing for some people,” he said. “But it’s good for them to see how people who are less privileged experience life, being able to interact with a diverse group of people.”


Data Trail

Nwanganga can personally attest to the value of pushing boundaries and diverse life experiences. He was born in Aba in eastern Nigeria but spent most of his elementary school years in England because his father worked for Royal Dutch Shell. 

Mendoza students work on a lesson plan.The family returned to Nigeria for his high school years, and Nwanganga was going to major in accounting in college until he took a coding class the summer after his first year. He saw a magazine article about Bill Gates and decided to follow in the Microsoft leader’s footsteps.

“I wanted to do everything he did at a similar age,” Nwanganga decided. “Just like Gates, I also decided to write a tic-tac-toe game as a teenager.” 

A year later, his father told him that his brother applied for the whole family to immigrate to the United States but only Nwanganga was chosen. They were so worried about losing the golden opportunity, they pulled him out of school to focus on the complex paperwork process. He landed in Grand Prairie, Texas, in 1997 because his father’s only U.S. contact there agreed to be a sponsor.

He nearly started at the University of Texas before learning the school wouldn’t accept his Nigerian college credits. But Andrews University in Michigan would because it has a partnership with his former school, so Nwanganga boarded a plane to South Bend.

“I didn’t know anybody, and I was so lost,” he said. “I took a cab from South Bend to Michigan, which was so expensive. I didn’t even have a coat.”

He started school at Andrews and soon decided to join the Marines, serving on active and reserve duty for two years each. He met his wife at Andrews when he returned to college to complete his degree. 

His first job in the industry was for a mobile electronics company in Elkhart. He advanced to managing software development for the IT department, where he wrote a program to track the shipping location for every warranty return. While that is common in logistics now, he said it seemed like “magic back then.” 

Sensing opportunity, Nwanganga started his own business in IT consulting, focusing on web development, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software implementation and database management.

In 2009, he landed an IT job at Notre Dame, helping that team move its data center from campus to the Amazon Web Services cloud. He also entered the graduate program in computer science, graduating in 2018. His dissertation was about optimizing workloads in the cloud using data science, and he started as a professor the following fall.

Nwangana’s ambitions are still large. He wants to expand the Early Bridges service to other schools in the region and advocate that the Indiana Department of Education include data science as a core part of its standards. He also is pursuing potential funding opportunities to restart the teacher training program.

“I hope that we can scale by going to different schools every semester,” he said. “The value of this route is that we can evaluate which concepts are the most effective. The after-school program is a lab with lower stakes where we can see what works, refine and then integrate it into classrooms.”

Photos by Peter Ringenberg


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