Current and incoming students at Centre College now have another option when considering a major or minor, preparing them for what Bloomberg magazine recently dubbed “America’s hottest job.”
Centre students can pursue a degree in data science, which combines elements of computer science, mathematics and statistics. The faculty who proposed the addition, however, insist that catching the wave of the latest academic fad didn’t motivate their efforts.
In fact, the data science proposal was the result of a year each of internal and external review, numerous revisions and general guidance from the American Statistical Association, said Michael Bradshaw, associate professor and chair of the computer science program.
According to Bradshaw, his “big idea” when hired in 2014 was to develop a data science curriculum. Fast forward five years, and the new major and minor were just approved by a vote of the faculty and will go into place beginning fall 2019.
Bradshaw added that part of the puzzle was hiring colleagues who could assist in the development. Enter Thomas Allen, who was hired in 2016 not only because of his great potential as a teacher but also his ability to contribute to efforts to bring data science to Centre.
Truth be told, said Allen, an assistant professor of computer science, “data science is everywhere, from medicine and entertainment, to politics and sports.” In fact, Allen said that when the College’s Center for Career & Professional Development organized a career chat last year with two Centre alumni working in the field of data science, more than 80 students showed up.
In addition to Allen, Bradshaw credits Assistant Professor of Mathematics Michael Lamar, who began teaching at Centre the same year as Allen, with spearheading the effort. Lamar’s research involves using statistical methods to find patterns and structure in data that would otherwise go unnoticed.
“Many of my students are passionate about this field,” said Lamar. “It’s exciting that Centre is able to offer students the opportunity to study a subject that they care about—and that the world cares about—so deeply.”
Both concur that a data science degree steeped in the liberal arts will give Centre graduates a leg up.
Allen said that analytics professionals are nearly always skilled when it comes to numbers, but they tend to find the so-called soft skills more difficult. “They run an algorithm and get the answer, but then struggle to explain that answer to people who didn’t spend four years studying math, coding, and machine learning,” he explained.
“One of the things that will stand out about our data science experience at Centre,” Allen added, “is being able to convey mathematically rich ideas to people who don’t necessarily have that same technical background.”
In other words, Lamar suggested, “If you hire Centre students, you can expect that they will come in with a strong set of analytical skills, that they can glean knowledge from the blooming, buzzing confusion of big data. But just as important, they will be able to explain that insight so that others can understand it, too.”
Previously, students interested in this field were having to double major, carrying a 20-course load. “A major in data science lets us respond more effectively to this interest from our students,” said Allen, “an interest we believe will only increase over time.”
And while the new major relies heavily on courses in computer science and mathematics, the minor draws on classes from across the College’s curriculum, “reflecting how a liberal arts education can strengthen a cutting-edge field like data science,” Bradshaw added.
Specifically, the minor was crafted intentionally to encourage students to link data science to their major.
“I love the idea of biologists using what they’ve learned in the minor to look for genetic similarities between species, historians sending bots to scour the Internet to analyze trends in national identity over the past two decades or economists leveraging the latest machine-learning algorithms to predict the effects of climate change on local markets,” Bradshaw explained.
More information about the new data science major and minor at Centre College is available here.
by Michael Strysick
March 18, 2018
Pictured above: Data science will be taught in Olin Hall, which features a Foucault Pendulum that demonstrates the Earth’s rotation.