Students hone critical thinking, research and presentation skills working on real-world problems

Posted 7th May 2019

Independent study and student projects are a central part of the curriculum at Carnegie Mellon University, where students tackle real-world problems out of personal interest or on behalf of a University client.

While independent study is optional, participating in student projects is compulsory for both the information technology and public policy & management students.

The value for students is that they work on actual problems and, under the supervision of faculty, further develop their critical thinking, researching and presentation skills.

The most recent group of students to undertake independent study and student projects presented their work to students, faculty and staff. Here’s an overview of the presentations.

Independent Study – Women and leadership

Anne Chivunde, a Master of Science in Public Policy and Management student, is passionate about improving the fortunes of women in her home country of Malawi, so as part of her degree she undertook independent study looking at women in leadership.

MSPPM student Anne Chivude with project advisor Professor Tim O'Loughlin

Entitled “Women and Leadership: Inclusion of Women in Leadership Positions in Malawi’s Public Sector and Civil Service”, Anne’s research looked at any connection – or disconnection - between the intent of government policy and the actual outcome or impact of the policy.

“In Malawi women make up 51 per cent of the population and yet they are grossly under-represented in leadership roles in the public sector”, said Anne.

“This is despite Malawi having good public policy and the right legal environment with regards to the promotion of women into decision-making structures.”

Anne’s research showed that the cultural attitudes to education and the advancement for women were critical factors affecting advancement of women. She showed that policy intent did not always equate to achieving the desired outcome, and that to effect real change people need to have the will to make changes.

Anne has been invited to present a paper, related to her independent study research, at the upcoming Research for Development Impact (RDI) Conference, to be held in Melbourne in June at La Trobe University.

Anne’s research was supervised by Professor Tim O’Loughlin, Professor of the Practice Public Policy, CMU Australia.

System Synthesis – algorithms in the judicial process

Five Public Policy and Management students undertook a group project looking at the challenges and opportunities for implementing algorithms in the judicial process in South Australia. Their ‘client’ was an Advisory Board of respected South Australians who volunteered to support the project.

In South Australia, 4 out of nine prisons regularly operate over capacity and each year the correctional services budget is over-spent by around $4 million.

In this project the students looked at the use of predictive algorithms to address budget management issues as well as the social benefits to the community of reducing repeat offending and length of time served.

The students conclude that predictive analytics could be valuable for managing correctional services but that issues such as community acceptance, data bias and dynamic variables need to be carefully considered.

Students: Anne Chivunde (Malawi), Jessmond Elvira (Philippines), Susan Heinrich (Australia), Marina Swinnen (Argentina) and Rama Wirawan (Indonesia).

This project was supervised by Professor Tim O’Loughlin, Professor of the Practice Public Policy, CMU Australia

Public Policy students before presenting their study on algorithms in the judicial process in SA.

IS Project – predicting water usage

Final year Master of Science in Information Technology students looked at predicting water usage using descriptive and predictive analytics. Their client was SA Water, the South Australian Government-owned utility that is responsible for delivering water services to more than 1.7 million customers.

Being able to predict water usage and demand is critical for SA Water to ensure the responsible management including the overall conservation of water resources.

SA Water wanted to explore data science and its capability to understand and predict water usage by their customers and find out whether certain demographics predisposed customers to over-consumption. They also wanted to see whether there was any demographic or usage correlation to overdue accounts and debt.

The students built and tested a predictive model, achieving an impressive accuracy rate of 99.2%, to predict customer water usage patterns. However, they concluded that for the model to be of more value to SA Water, more work needed to be done on the data to include other correlated measures which can affect a customer’s water consumption pattern.

SA Water was pleased and impressed by the initial work done by the CMU-A students, and it is expected that further work will be done on this model by the next cohort of students.

Students: Abishek Jayachandran (India), Nitesh Singh (India) and Md Zaidul Alam (Australia).

This project was supervised by Professor Murli Viswanathan, Associate Teaching Professor of Information Technology, CMU Australia.

The SA Water presentation group with advisor Professor Murli Viswanathan.

Independent Study: refugees and human rights

Lawyer and Master of Science in Public Policy and Management student Marina Swinnen undertook a major piece of research into the human rights of refugees in Australia.

Each year over 20 million people globally seek refuge in new countries, largely in the developed world. Over 40 percent spend up to 3 years in detention and half of the detainees are children under 18 years of age.

Marina focused on the Australian situation, as Australia is one of the few countries to use an off-shore detention and assessment model.

Her research concluded that, while the Australian Government believed this model would deter and discourage refugees, it came at a very high price to the refugees with respect to mental and physical health. And that, as the Australian Government had not factored this into the model, in the long term it had unforeseen ramifications for Australia in terms of global reputation and cost.

Marina developed a 5-year strategic plan including recommendations which would restore the human rights of refugees seeking asylum in Australia.

This project was supervised by Prof Sylvia Borzutzky, Teaching Professor, International Relations and Politics, CMU Pittsburgh

Public Policy student Marina Swinned during her presentation.

Independent Study: The economic value of employee assistance programs in remote workplaces

Employee assistance programs (EAPs), which are free counseling services to address workplace or personal issues, are funded by many employers in Australia and other high-income countries.

Three Master of Science in Public Policy and Management students conducted a rigorous economic evaluation of an EAP in South Australia, in order to understand the cost benefit of providing employee assistance programs for organizations with a geographically dispersed workforce.

The team looked at the overall cost, reduction in staff absenteeism, improvement in presenteeism, and potential improvement in client outcomes, by merging findings from the international literature with South Australian government data.

The next step for the project is finalizing and submitting a manuscript outlining the findings and recommendations to the project client.

Students: Tony Elson (Australia), Susan Heinrich (Australia), and Rama Wirawan (Indonesia).

This project was supervised by CMU-A’s visiting Distinguished Fulbright Professor Donald Shepard.

Public Policy students Tony, Susan and Rama with advisor Prof. Don Shepard.