Desautels’ Juan Camilo Serpa earns Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching

Prof. Juan Camilo Serpa makes connections between the classroom and the real world. The Associate Professor of Operations Management is being recognized with the Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching for an approach that engages students by asking them use data analytics to see familiar data in novel ways.

Serpa has asked students to devise new strategies for NBA basketball teams by analyzing existing data about made and missed shots, and to use the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) data to predict how new cinematic releases will be received by critics on the platform. But when the COVID-19 pandemic closed down classrooms in 2020, Serpa brought course work and the real world together in a whole new way.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there were two types of people: those who wanted to hear nothing about the pandemic because it was all too overwhelming. And those who loved to look at the data -- to see how it is evolving, and the daily number of cases. A lot of my students were the type that wanted to keep updated and see these trends – and I was too.” says Serpa.

“But at that time, there were no dashboards or data tracking. So, I gathered a group of about 30 students who studied software engineering, computer science, and business analytics. And I created a course called epidemiology analytics. I taught the students how to use technology to study pandemics, how to create more informed graphs, and how to communicate it to the public. We created the one of the first COVID-19 dashboards for Quebec, and it was viewed by over 10,000 people daily. Ultimately, the Government of Quebec created its own dashboard after the second wave in the fall, but during the first months of the pandemic, this was one of the main sources of information.”

These connections with the real world are integral to Serpa’s philosophy of teaching. Data analytics can have major impact in the real world, and it is critical that the skills he teaches are applied responsibly.

“As much as we hate to admit it, academia can be a little bubble. We get with the idea that what is happening inside the field is the same as what is happening in the real world. But that is not the case,” says Serpa.

“Analytics that use artificial intelligence have become dominant, but most of its use is not what I would call noble. People focus on how to get you more addicted to your phone or spend more time on Facebook, and this is something that has always bothered me. I want to do AI and to teach AI, but in ways that have good uses. That is what gives me passion for teaching this to students. I do not only want to teach students how to use this technology, but how to use it responsibly. I want students to be able to bring social value through data analytics.”

Currently on sabbatical, Serpa is hoping to do exactly that. He is in the planning stages of an interdisciplinary project that will map food systems in Quebec. It will give residents have a clearer picture of how the food on local supermarket shelves connects with agricultural practices, and Serpa hopes that this knowledge will help people eat better, understand the environmental impact of their food choices, and raise awareness about the role factory farming plays in food systems.

Serpa is a converted vegan and an anti-speciesism activist, and hopes that this research will have a tangible impact on the welfare of non-human animals, but he values the impact he can have as both a researcher and a teacher.

Teaching gives me a chance to see people seeing before they go out in to the world -- to connect with them” says Serpa

“When students are at university, they are taking career choices, and deciding what they will do through their lives. And when you get to teach what's going on in your field, it is an immediate kind of reward.”

Article written by Ty Burke
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