By Sasha Nyary
Mount Holyoke College soon will join a select group of liberal arts colleges offering a concentration in data science.
The concentration will be launched starting in the fall through the College’s Nexus Program, which is designed to help students link their liberal arts education with their career goals. Data science will be one of nine Nexus tracks. Others include global business, education policy and practice, engineering, journalism, and law.
Data science is an emerging interdisciplinary field taught primarily on the graduate level, said Martha Hoopes, associate professor of biological sciences, who cochairs the new Nexus with Amber Douglas, associate professor of psychology and education. They noted that only a handful of liberal arts colleges currently offer a data science curriculum.
Twenty years ago, Mount Holyoke was one of few liberal arts colleges with a statistics department. This new program is an outgrowth and continuation of the College’s educational commitment, which recognizes the importance of quantitative literacy in telling a variety of stories.
“In 20 years, data science will be standard on every campus, and establishing this Nexus program is putting Mount Holyoke on the cutting edge right now,” Hoopes said. “By creating a data science Nexus, we create conversations across campus for our faculty as well as for our students. This addition invigorates our research and that sense of life in classrooms and on campus.”
Data science involves the extraction of meaningful knowledge from information by using mathematics, statistics, and computer science. Researchers use data science to connect their technical skills directly to real-world challenges and events.
Today’s data are complex, disorganized, and seemingly endless. Increased computer capacity captures extraordinary amounts of information; data can come from anywhere and be about virtually anything. Researchers, therefore, need increasingly sophisticated tools to acquire, manage, process, and analyze the data. They also need the skills and tools to visualize the information and communicate their conclusions about it in written, graphic, and auditory formats.
In order to learn these skills, the Nexus in data science will require a student to take four classes that are either at the 200 or 300 level. This includes at least one class in statistics, one in computer science, and one in the student’s area of interest. The student also must complete an internship that gives her direct practical experience, followed by a class that helps her reflect on the internship. She also must present her experience at the LEAP (Learning From Application) Symposium.
The Nexus structure provides a significant opportunity for students who are interested in quantitative approaches to research questions, Hoopes said. She noted that students often ask questions in their studies that lead them to become interested in statistics and computer science.
To answer these questions, students need computing skills, programming skills, data analysis, and visualization skills. The new Nexus gives students the technical background they need to apply those skills in any area of study.
Traditionally, those areas of concentration have been in the science, engineering, and technology fields, where women are underrepresented. But students just as easily could focus on the social sciences or the humanities.
“Being able to use these quantitative, data-rich, and data-driven approaches makes our students stronger, more competitive academically and professionally,” Douglas said. “This advantage can help even in unexpected fields such as journalism or music. A women’s college is the perfect environment for data science.”
Douglas and Hoopes both have seen a growing interest in data science from strong quantitative students who take advanced courses in statistics and programming.
“There is real interest from students,” Douglas said, noting that they demonstrate their interest through the internships they seek out, the graduate research they pursue, and the jobs they secure. “They are looking for that combination of skills.”
Hoopes has found the same growing interest among her biology and environmental studies students, who often take statistics classes beyond what is required and find themselves with a statistics minor.
“Then they apply to schools to study biomath or even to pursue a master’s degree in statistics before going on for a PhD in their primary field of study,” Hoopes said.
Interest in data science also has steadily grown among faculty, Hoopes and Douglas said, and providing a venue for faculty from different disciplines to come together collaboratively is an important feature of the new program.
The Nexus Program in data science was created at a time when Mount Holyoke is expanding its range in the field. The College last year partnered with Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) and Smith College to form the Women in Data Science initiative. The four-year program includes funding for five professors to work with students interested in data science.
“The faculty are coming just in time,” Hoopes said. “We can’t offer enough of these classes at the moment. Students are just packing all the seats.”
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