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Story by Dr. Shirley Luna '85, '06 & '14
Photo by Robin Johnson '99 & '19

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Dr. Keith Hubbard

Dr. Keith Hubbard

Professor of Mathematics
College of Sciences and Mathematics

Dr. Keith Hubbard, an SFA professor of mathematics, will freely tell you he loves puzzles. When he sees capable students struggle to be successful, he views it as another puzzle to help solve.

"Universities collect vast amounts of data, and in these terabytes of data, it is possible to see in real time which students are at risk of not completing their degree, of becoming disengaged, of not being successful," he said. "If you could help solve these very intricate problems using this data, you could make thousands of people's lives better. It's almost a moral imperative."

SFA's learning management systems allow a professor to record absences and see how many times a student has logged in to the system for that specific class, but Hubbard sees a benefit in looking across the data to determine when students disengage.

"We are a state institution collecting all of this student data, but are we really using it?" he questioned. "Google and Amazon have teams of people scouring your data — how well are the rest of us doing it?

"If a freshman student stops eating meals on campus, that matters," he said. "Something has happened in that student's life, but that information is on a different server. It's siloed. It's our responsibility to use this information to help students, and it's the right thing to do."

SFA students are working with Hubbard to design the systems that scour the data, and it was a student who suggested that information from the Student Recreation Center be included in the study.

"There's a correlation between the number of times a student swipes in at the recreation center and his or her GPA. It's a small piece, but it is correlated," he said. "It's important to be able to invite students into this problem-solving, but a challenge is that helping students on this scale costs money."

With the necessary data, an advisor or faculty member can contact a student to check in and ask how they are doing.

"What's the worst-case scenario? The student might realize people care? He or she knows there is some accountability for turning in homework? I don't see a downside," Hubbard said.

One of the suggested action items based on the initial data analysis is strategic room assignments.

"If you room with someone who is studying in the same college and likely has the same amount of homework as you, you'll likely have a higher GPA. And both students will do better than someone who rooms alone," he said.

The computational needs for this type of research are not inexpensive, Hubbard explains, but it benefits students across campus, both those involved as researchers and those assisted by it.

"I always say to my students, 'Do you think we are going to have more data in 10 years or less data?'" he said. "Being prepared to gather and analyze data to support students at the right time is our job. And it is important training for the future."