Teaching Business Intelligence at Cornell University

by Jeff Christen, Cornell University

For the Fall 2016 semester, I had the opportunity to teach a pilot, four credit, masters level course through Cornell University’s Computer and Information Science department. The course was entitled, Business Intelligence Systems and its goal was to give students a solid foundation and understanding of BI concepts including dimensional data modeling, ETL design and data visualizations. In addition, the course reinforced their technical learning through hands-on experience with industry standard tools.

Course Content

The primary text for the course was The Data Warehouse Toolkit Third Edition by Ralph Kimball & Margy Ross, supplemented with some on-line articles. The first third of the semester focused on dimensional modeling using the Kimball methodology. The second third of the semester covered SQL, ETL design & development, and basic data visualization concepts through hands on tutorials and individual assignments using the virtual BI lab. The final third of the semester was largely focused on the team projects with some special topic discussions.

Virtual BI Lab

The core of the hands-on learning experience was a virtual lab environment where each student had their own Amazon Web Services Workspace (virtual desktop) with Oracle SQL Developer, the WhereScape RED ETL tool and Tableau desktop installed. In addition to their Workspace, each student had access to the class database which was an AWS Oracle RDS with many sample data sets plus a database account for each student with access to create tables, views, etc.  The students had everything they needed to explore data sets, create their own dimensional models and populate a data warehouse using WhereScape RED and finally build various visualizations with Tableau.  The use of the AWS Workspaces allowed the student to access their environment from any device and not worry about the installation of the various software products and database drivers. The AWS Workspaces lab also allowed us to work through examples interactively during class. This also came in handy for office hours when a student could simply open their laptop and show me where they were struggling with their assignment.

Team Project

In addition to several individual assignments focused on core skills, the students also participated in a team project.  Project teams consisted of 4-5 students and each was one of three BI projects using real world Cornell business challenges and associated data sets.  There were multiple teams per project which helped illustrate that there are multiple ways to implement a BI solution.

Project teams had access to a snapshot of the necessary source data via the virtual lab.  The teams were also given a description of the business goals for their project and they had the opportunity to question a business representative about their project.  The students had milestone deliverables throughout the project to help keep them on track by providing deadlines and feedback on their progress.  Example milestones included: requirements tracking, logical dimensional data model, and ETL source to target mapping document.

The final deliverable was a working Proof of Concept, fully documented, along with a 20-minute presentation on their work to their client and classmates.  Each project team also created an online portfolio of their project work using ePortfolio by Digication.  The project ePortfolio sites served two purposes;  1) They serve as a nice reference for the client who may choose to implement one of the student Proof of Concepts and  2) The students may simply add their ePortfolio url to their resume to showcase their project work.

Here are two sample team ePortfolio sites:

MPS Projects for Spring semester

As part of Cornell’s Masters of Professional Studies – Information Science program, students must complete a semester long team project (http://infosci.cornell.edu/academics/mps/mps-project) MPS students work in teams of 2-3 and receive credits for the project. Two of the project options available to students this Spring semester are from the Fall BI course.  The MPS student teams will work much more closely with the Cornell business clients to further refine requirements from the Proof of Concepts created by the Fall class teams with the goal of implementing a production BI solution for their client.  For the MPS projects, the students will not be working in the virtual lab environment, but in Cornell’s DW/BI environment where they will be introduced to Cornell’s DW/BI data modeling and coding standards and processes.  The student teams will meet weekly with members of Cornell’s Office of Data Architecture and Analytics (ODAA) where they will receive feedback on their work in the form of model reviews, code review and project discussions.  The two BI MPS projects are co-sponsored by the business clients and ODAA. This should result in deliverables that not only meet the business requirements but are sustainable and supportable by ODAA after the students leave.


Student feedback on the Fall BI Systems course has been very positive.  Students found the blend of Kimball Dimensional Modeling theory, mixed with a lot of hands on work, to be an effective means of learning the concepts and complexities of data. Thirty-two students successfully completed the course, and Cornell plans to offer the course again for Fall semester 2017.