UF's supercomputer, which is named the HiPerGator

Empowering the future

How UF Business Prioritizes AI for Every Student

When former UF Warrington Dean John Kraft decided to increase the college’s efforts around AI, Warrington created a marketing analytics role for an incoming professor to help lead it.

Eighteen months later, it was still vacant with no strong candidates on the horizon.

In the UF Doctor of Business Administration program, Jim Hoover was finishing his doctorate after a 25-year career in the Navy, followed by serving as Managing Director and Client Account Lead for Accenture’s Navy account. Born in Gainesville to parents who both attended UF, Hoover (MBA ’96, DBA ’17) was asked by a classmate if he had any interest in the marketing analytics role. Hoover was already teaching a business analytics course at Florida Southern College and had years of AI experience in his career.

“I wouldn’t have applied if it was anywhere else,” Hoover said. “I wouldn’t have left my Accenture job for just any university. This was coming home for me. It’s my third and final career.”

Today, Hoover is a clinical professor and director of UF’s Business Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Center. He has played an integral role in implementing AI throughout the college’s curriculum—creating new classes and programs, hiring new faculty who specialize in it and finding better ways to teach the next generation of business leaders how to effectively utilize AI in what they do today and years down the line.

The goal was to modify the curriculum, the programs and the entire way the college functioned to prioritize the oncoming wave of AI. Businesses around the world were starting to explore AI more, but when it came to hiring students out of college, the new hires weren’t ready for the technology growth.

UF and Warrington made it a top priority to fill that gap. Today, more than 60 UF business master’s students have access to HiPerGator, the UF supercomputer. More than 180 students have completed AI and machine learning projects with business, government and non-profit organizations. While business students used to work through spreadsheets in Excel, the essential tools of the industry have changed. Those tools are now Python, R and data visualization software that help companies answer their most critical questions and utilize AI and machine learning.

“Spreadsheets were able to do a lot of analysis, but the number of rows you could get out of a big enterprise system stops at one million,” Hoover said. “Major companies are going to track their sales and have more than one million, so they need larger spaces to work. Tools like what are being used in AI allow companies to do analyses on a scale and with methods that aren’t possible in spreadsheets. AI is beyond the spreadsheet.”

Upon starting his role at UF in 2017, Hoover’s first charge was clear—create a business analytics graduate program. It was a natural fit for Hoover, as he was working with other universities to build similar programs during his time with Accenture.

UF already offered a graduate program in information systems and operations management, and business analytics was one of the four available concentrations. However, it needed to be built out into its own program with the growing demand. Hoover and the Business Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Center also worked to strengthen the information systems and operations management curriculum, as well as implement more AI elements into management and finance master’s courses.

In the last year, eight new AI and machine learning assignments and exercises were created for students in upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses. The Business Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Center even made a 15-hour version of an AI for Business course for continuing education outside of traditional students.

The AI push extends to undergraduate courses in an equally impactful way. All undergraduate business students, regardless of major, are required to take Foundations of Business Analytics & Artificial Intelligence. It’s an introduction to Python, R and other important tools for data analysis and machine learning.

But the AI focus doesn’t just impact curriculum. It also plays an important role with UF business faculty. In 2020, UF announced a $70 million artificial intelligence partnership with NVIDIA. This began the university’s increased focus on AI, including a commitment from UF to hire 100 more faculty members who focused on AI.

Ten of those faculty were hired by Warrington in the first two years of the initiative—Cheryl Lynn Aasheim (University of Florida PhD, accounting), Joel Davis (information systems and operations management), Shu He (University of Texas at Austin PhD, information systems and operations management), Alejandro Lopez Lira (University of Pennsylvania PhD, finance), Ivy Munoko (Rutgers University PhD, accounting), Jingchaun Pu (University of Florida PhD, information systems and operations management), Gabriel Pundrich (University of Technology, Sydney PhD, accounting), Yanbin Wu (Emory University PhD, finance), Mingzhang Yin (University of Texas at Austin PhD, marketing) and Nan Zhang (University of Illinois PhD, management).

The increased number of AI faculty has broadened the scope of AI offerings on campus for students and faculty. For example, the college played an integral role in hosting the UF-NSF Workshop on AI Governance in February 2023.

A group of leading AI experts from institutions around the world presented on topics related to AI and its applications and implications for hiring, management, privacy, health care treatment decisions, population health and more.

“We are taking leadership as a college in connecting AI with business research,” said Associate Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives Mo Wang. “We are cultivating research leadership in business and AI as we are able to attract and hire faculty who are experts in it.”

Those same AI faculty hires are also producing important research that keeps UF as one of the leading AI experts. With the help of the Business Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Center, all UF business faculty can access HiPerGator for their research as a shared resource. In total, UF business faculty have loaded 1.5 terabytes of real-world business data to the HiPerGator environment.

With that access, UF business faculty are discovering ways ChatGPT can predict future stock behavior better than traditional models and how data can dampen drug trade on the dark web—you can read more about these research pieces on pages 14 and 15 of this magazine, respectively. While they’re impacting the real world with their research, they’re also playing key roles in the growth and creation of existing degree programs to ensure that the next generation of business leaders are ready to maximize their use of data.

As the faculty experience in AI grows with new hires and experience, UF’s business programs only get stronger.

In the DBA program, students will take a course on AI and machine learning for research.

Every business master’s program offered at UF has electives or core courses about AI. Whether students enroll in a specialized master’s program or the UF MBA program, they can take courses on Python, R, Fintech, marketing analytics, human capital analytics or many others.

“All of these courses and developments support the overall program the student is in, but they’re available to anyone at the master’s level who wants to take them,” Hoover said.

One of the most popular and impactful ways AI shows up for UF business students is through practicum projects. When student internships were cancelled during the summer of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, UF still wanted to find a way for students to gain real world experience. Practicum projects were created for students in the MS Business Analytics program, and they’ve allowed students to solve real problems for companies like Accenture, Bank of America, Bonnie Plants, Disney, NextEra Energy and many others.

For example, students working with Bonnie Plants developed a machine learning model capable of accurately predicting sales for the company’s retail locations at Home Depot and Lowe’s stores across the country.

“The project involved extensive data preprocessing, exploratory data analysis, and model training and validation phases,” Scarlet Wessin (MS-ISOM ‘23) said. “Rigorous evaluation and fine-tuning were performed to ensure the model’s performance and reliability. By successfully developing this machine learning model, we aimed to empower Bonnie Plants with a powerful tool for optimizing their sales operations, maximizing revenue and strategically planning for future growth.”

The practicums take place in Hoover’s Analytics Practicum class, but students with focuses in data science, information systems and operations management are all taking it to benefit from the experience. What started as a necessity because of COVID-19 has now been built into the curriculum.

“This practicum shows our students can do AI projects from beginning to end,” Hoover said. “Companies are giving us great projects with lots of data to use, which means the students are gaining a lot by adding that to their resume.”

As UF moves into the future by creating well-rounded and prepared business students, AI is a critical focus point. The entire world, especially in business, is changing to rely on AI. The University of Florida is making sure students are prepared to lead the way.