"Big Data" Collaboration Big Experience for Students

July 8, 2013

By Jeni Baker

Practicum pairs Duke’s Master of Engineering Management students with the global Parsons Corporation to address real-world issues.

Jim Shappell was on an airplane last winter the first time he gave “big data” much serious thought.

Like many people, Shappell, Parsons Corporation’s Group Executive for Strategy and Business Development, was becoming familiar with the concept of big data. But some in-flight reading really got him thinking about its implications for the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry—in which Parsons is a multinational leader.

Not long after, Shappell contacted Parsons Corporate Vice President Andrew Berger.

Putting Pratt students on the case

“Jim wanted to know if big data was something we needed to be thinking and doing something about—whether we could apply this leading-edge topic to our business,” Berger recalls. “We discussed how big data might be relevant to our industry and how valuable it could potentially be to Parsons, as well as to our clients, contractors and industry teaming partners.”

At the time, Berger was working with Joseph Holmes—director of the Consulting Practicum Program(CPP) offered by Duke’s Master of Engineering Management Program (MEMP)—to identify a topic for the Spring 2013 practicum Parsons was sponsoring.

Berger, also a member of the MEMP industrial advisory board, has served as the face of Parsons throughout its long partnership with the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke—and has sponsored a practicum every semester since CPP’s 2005 inception.

“We define a question or problem—something Parsons wants to explore but may not be able to assign internal resources to—and Joey and I turn it into a course description,” he says. “I manage each practicum as I would a real-world consulting assignment.”

Berger contacted Holmes and they quickly agreed that the topic should be big data.

“My top criterion when working with Pratt’s corporate sponsors is that the students work on real issues that our partners want to address,” Holmes says. “We strive to identify outstanding, cutting-edge projects for every team.”

Holmes called upon Jim Sund, a colleague at management-consulting firm Acuity Edge, to coach the team weekly from January to May. An active CPP mentor, Sund says the MEMP’s diverse practicums offer students “a unique opportunity to help address challenges for real companies—and a cost-effective way for sponsors to procure high-quality work from bright and motivated Pratt students. They also really help differentiate those students as job candidates.”

Berger agrees. “Working with Joey and [Pratt Associate Dean of Corporate and Industry Relations] Russell Holloway has been an incredibly effective relationship that’s benefited both Parsons and the students.”

Implications of big data for the AEC industry: The team’s findings

CPP teams are required to provide their corporate contacts with a proposal, work plan and estimate at the start of every project; to regularly update those contacts on their progress; and to deliver a live presentation and companion report at the end of the project. Teams typically invest more than 800 cumulative hours to complete a project’s research, analysis and strategic elements.

In this case, the team presented to Berger and others in Parsons’ Charlotte, NC, office. In addition, team member David Vanderschaaf, who served as the primary liaison with Parsons throughout the semester, was asked to give an additional presentation at Parsons’ quarterly executive conference at the Pasadena, Calif., corporate headquarters in June.

The team made several key recommendations, which “weren’t so much about ways for Parsons to use or leverage big data,” explains Vanderschaaf, “but ways that they can pursue a range of industry-specific opportunities that now exist because of big data, such as data-center construction and ‘smart building’ and ‘smart city’ projects.”

By all accounts, Vanderschaaf’s presentation went well and the Parsons execs were impressed with the team’s work.

As for next steps, Berger says the immediate opportunity for Parsons is “to use our global capability and expertise to design and build the data centers and communications infrastructure that will be needed to store and move big data for our customers.”

“In the intermediate term, we’ll continue to investigate the types and sources of big data that may become relevant and useful to our infrastructure clients and projects,” he adds. “As it matures, big data seems to have the potential to add almost limitless new dimensions to the basis of the design itself.”

The Parsons Corporation big-data practicum team comprised MEMP students (clockwise from upper left) Priyam Bohra, Abhishek Dube, Ariane Callender, Carlos Gonzalez, Kaixi Hua and David Vanderschaaf.

MEMP's Consulting Practicum Program: By the numbers

  • Launched in 2005, the program has offered more than 60 practicums involving some 300 MEMP students.
  • More than 30 corporate partners have sponsored practicums.
  • More than one-third of MEMP students take part in a practicum.
  • Parsons Corporation has sponsored 17 practicums involving nearly 80 students—and has hired more than 25 students who participated in those practicums.

Learn more about the MEMP Consulting Practicum Program