Stew Sutton Enhances Student Learning with Donated Software Licenses

September 19, 2018

Students taking Information Visualization (IN4MATX 143), taught by Professor David Redmiles, have free access to software that they might not realize would normally cost thousands of dollars. Thanks to guest lecturer Stew Sutton, a principal scientist at the Aerospace Corp. who is also a visiting scientist in the Department of Informatics, students can freely use both Tableau and Alteryx, top-of-the-market solutions for discovery-based visual analytics and for data preparation and advanced analytics, respectively. “These are very expensive products that are highly relevant across multiple industries, including healthcare, aerospace, financial services, consumer products, retail and social media services,” says Sutton, who personally reached out to these companies to create a program for higher education.

Informatics Professor David Redmiles with guest lecturer and visiting scientist Stew Sutton.

“It’s a win-win-win-win for the university, students, technology vendor and future employer,” Sutton explains. Accessing these software licenses at no additional cost helps the university provide relevant, valued instruction, while also providing students with resume-ready skills that are in high demand across industry. At the same time, the tech vendor gets time-extended product exposure with many potential future customers, while employers benefit from an expanding pool of graduates with relevant skills.

“At the corporate level, we spend several hundred thousand dollars a year to acquire and maintain this technology for several hundred users,” says Sutton. “The new pricing model for Tableau at the level that I adapt for instruction is $70/user/month for a one-year term, and that would be an equivalent of a $210,000 value (at the commercial pricing for the product).” In the past, Sutton has used various Tableau products (Desktop and Server) for data preparation and the development of visualizations. However, this year he was able to deliver the Tableau Server experience using a cloud-hosted service (Tableau Online) in conjunction with Tableau Desktop. “It is useful to adapt the Tableau Server environment, whether online or on-premise, to let students experience analytics collaboration,” he says. “Also, the instructor then has a managed environment for collecting and assessing the students’ individual analytical assignments.”

He has also worked closely with Alteryx, headquartered in Irvine, to get free one-year student licenses. “Alteryx is a very high-end resource and is priced at $5,195/user per year,” he notes. “For 250 students, it would be a total commercial value of $1.3 million/year.” Students can use Alteryx to create statistical, predictive, prescriptive and spatial models. “I strongly encourage the students to take advantage of their long (one-year) duration with the product to expand their skills even after the class ends.”

Sutton has been partnering with UCI for more than 10 years, which stems in part from the close relationship between UCI and Aerospace Corp., where he has worked for more than 25 years. Yet he has gone above and beyond for UCI, not only acquiring the donated license but also guest lecturing for free about how to use these software packages as well as sponsoring projects in capstone classes. “My role at UCI is motivated as an act of ‘community service.’ I have also created many friends and colleagues, across multiple departments, with the highest concentration in Informatics.”

Informatics students can benefit greatly from Sutton’s close ties to the Department of Informatics. As Redmiles puts it, “Sutton’s contributions to the class — both in his guest lectures and in gaining access for us to Tableau and Alteryx — have greatly helped the class reach its pedagogical goals of balancing the theory of visualization with practice.”

— Shani Murray