Professor McKay is a data scientist, drawing inference from large data sets, and he has done research has been in two main areas: observational cosmology and higher education. He has also been an academic administrator, leading the 1800 student Honors Program in the UM College of Literature Science and the Arts from 2008-2016.
In astrophysics, McKay’s main research tools have been the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Dark Energy Survey, and the simulations which support them both. His team used these tools to probe the growth and nature of cosmic structure as well as the expansion history of the Universe, especially through studies of galaxy clusters and gravitational lensing. He has also studied astrophysical transients, including gamma-ray bursts, as part of the Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment.
In higher education, McKay does learning analytics: using the rich, extensive, and complex data produced by digitally mediated education to better understand and improve student outcomes. In 2011, his team created the ECoach computer-tailored student support system. In 2014, he launched the REBUILD project, an effort to increase the use of evidence-based methods in large foundational courses. From 2012-2015 he chaired the University of Michigan’s Learning Analytics Task Force, which helped to create several new systems and structures supporting the use of data to improve teaching and learning at Michigan This group’s Learning Analytics Fellows Program provided the basis for McKay’s edX MOOC on Practical Learning Analytics.