ITS Receives Global Award

The University of St. Thomas has been recognized as a leader among educational institutions worldwide for its innovative efforts to enhance the technology skills of the university community. The Institutional Data, Analytics and Reporting (IDAR) team within Innovation and Technology Services (ITS) was a Gartner Eye on Innovation Awards for Education winner in the data and analytics category. St. Thomas was the only U.S. team to win in any of the five education categories.

Julie Zilka and Jena Zangs.
Julie Zilka (l) and Jena Zangs. (Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas)

The university received the award for IDAR’s Data Innovators program, which was created in 2021 to empower and upskill the data capabilities of the St. Thomas community.

“This is a tremendous honor in the IT world, the education sector, and a first for the university,” Jena Zangs, director of IDAR and deputy chief data officer said. “We made this vision a reality together, our whole IDAR team and all of the cohort members!”

Zangs co-led the initiative with Julie Zilka, associate director of data empowerment. Additional IDAR team members include: Trent Brager, Doug Carmody, Bryan Helminiak, Sushant Khullar and Matt Watschke.

Gartner is a leading technology and research consulting firm. Winners were chosen both by Gartner judges and by a public vote of more than 7,000 people.

Background on the Data Innovators program

As a part of ITS’ 2020 Digital Transformation strategic plan, the university fully digitized key platforms, providing consistent and centralized access to resources for the community. Building on this progress, ITS recognized the next step was working with campus partners to improve the digital capabilities of the St. Thomas community so these resources and tools could be more effectively deployed.

This insight was in line with emerging IT industry best practices, including the urgent need for cross-functional and digitally capable business teams, according to Gartner.

IDAR started developing the Data Innovators program in February 2021. The launch of ITS’ new ticketing system, Tommie Tech Services, allowed the team to centrally track and analyze incoming data requests from around the university. This vantage point highlighted campus knowledge gaps and solidified the need for a data literacy program focused on four foundational themes: data management, university tools and systems, data analytics, and data storytelling. The themes allowed Zangs and Zilka the flexibility to address key topics identified as campus need areas, including data stewardship, data security, data ethics, hands-on training across 20-plus tools, single visualizations, data storytelling, and data accessibility.

“We wanted a custom hands-on training program to create opportunity for staff and faculty already passionate about data and analytics – investing in the amazing talent we already have and building a strong unified data network together,” Zangs said.

After a few short months of curriculum design, the 12-month Data Innovators program launched in the summer of 2021. Each cohort member was paired with a mentor from IDAR to help them conceptualize and complete a data or analytical project that addressed a core business challenge for their department. Training and coursework were built within Canvas and supplemented with monthly classes via Zoom where the group covered a key data topic in the curriculum. At the end of the program each cohort member was able to showcase their work to their supervisor and top leaders at the university, in addition to receiving a digital badge to display their achievement.

A strong impact

A total of 52 staff/faculty members from 26 departments applied to the Data Innovators program. Across two years the program accepted 30 cohort members, where 63% identified as female, 27% identified as BIPOC, and 100% have retained at the university. In the first cohort 35% were granted more data and analytics responsibility within their department and three transitioned into new data-centric roles at the university.

“Our IDAR team is extremely proud to build partnerships with so many and help them grow into the data careers they want here at the university,” Zilka said.

The first cohort of the Data Innovators program showcased high-impact projects from across the university including:

  • The creation of multiple graduate admissions recruiting dashboards to support enrollment efforts
  • An NCAA-required academic progress dashboard for student-athletes
  • New data storytelling systems to support retention efforts
  • Interactive explorations on alumni engagement and prospective donors
  • Analytical modeling to provide insight into student and program success

In addition, almost all the projects converted existing manual processes into automated processes, saving hundreds of work hours per year for each department.

“The Data Innovators program provided me with a new set of tools to apply to my work,” Director of Retention and Student Success Tonia Jones Peterson said, who was a member of the first Data Innovators cohort. “I am better equipped to present data in a more user-friendly way, to think critically about my messaging and to identify the most salient points to best articulate my messaging. The program gave me a more in-depth understanding of the systems and tools that are available, and I highly recommend it to my colleagues.”

As the program is in high demand at the university the IDAR team is shifting its delivery method and partnering with the Digital Learning Success team in STELAR to launch a three-tiered digital badge pathway: Data Foundations, Data Steward, Data Innovators. The first, Data Foundations, will be launched early in 2023 and available to all staff, faculty, and student workers.

“We want to drive St. Thomas into the future by unlocking the power of our data,” Zangs said. “This new method will broaden the opportunity for all to gain foundational knowledge on their own time, but continue to offer hands-on training for those who want more data in their career journey.”

Data Innovators cohort members

2022 Cohort Completes2023 Cohort Completes
Alley Benton, Opus College of BusinessAllison Hanson, Financial Planning and Budgeting
Alyssa Emme, Morrison Family College of HealthCarol Chen, ITS
Bryan Helminiak, Residence Life (now works in IDAR)Chad Caruthers, ThreeSixty Journalism
Diane Stahl, University AdvancementEric Fort, College of Arts and Sciences Chemistry Department
Jamie Heaney, ITSJoe Hennen, University Advancement
Jeremie Bellenir, School of EducationLinda Haas, Human Resources
Keturah Ellis, School of EngineeringKari Petryszyn, Libraries
Laura Bru, Undergraduate Research Opportunities ProgramPaloma Riehm, Faculty Affairs
Li Rong, Controller’s OfficePaula Baingana, University Advancement
Michael Getty, Student AchievementShannon Regier, College of Arts and Sciences
Michelle Smith Ware, AthleticsVeronica Putzier, School of Engineering
Sarah Smith, Office of Accreditation
Sue Kolles, University Advancement
Tonia Jones Peterson, Office of Retention
Trent Brager, Libraries (now works in IDAR)