Jo Tabacek/Pioneer Log

Data and technology: a major in the works

In 2012, columnists in the Harvard Business Review deemed “data scientist” the sexiest job of the 21st century. The columnists claim that “the shortage of data scientists is becoming a serious constraint in some sectors.” Over 50% of Lewis & Clark’s peer schools have added data science programs in the past few years. LC has 17 peer schools that the Admissions office has identified as primary competitors in the liberal arts school market. 

In response to the mounting importance of data literacy, Dean of the College Bruce Suttmeier, put out a request for proposals for a new initiative in data and technology last year in coordination with the Strategic Enrollment Management Committee (SEM). Three proposals came out of this: a data science proposal, a cybersecurity proposal, and a science, technology and society proposal. 

“This year, because they were all great proposals but all had similarities about them, Bruce Suttmeier asked the SEM committee to convene a new subcommittee to take the best parts of those proposals and put them together,” Ellan Seljan, chair of the Political Science department and member of the planning group for a new data science and technology-related minor, said.

The members of the planning group are Seljan, Associate Professor of Computer Science Peter Drake, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies Mitch Reyes, Associate Professor of Philosophy Joel Martinez and Pravaneh Abbaspour, who is the College’s Science and Data Services Librarian. 

The group has not yet landed on a name for the major. The proposal is for a data and technology-related major and minor and a cybersecurity minor. They are deciding between the names “Data Science,” “Data Analytics,” “Data Studies” or “Data, Technology and Society.” They are seeking input from the LC community. 

Part of the reason why the group is resistant to simply use the name “Data Science” is because the major will be more interdisciplinary than traditional data science majors, it will also emphasize data analysis for the social good which will set this program apart from LC’s peer schools. 

“We want to bring speakers to the College that speak to the social good that can come out of data and technology and the pitfalls, the importance of doing data analysis responsibly and ethically and concerns about data privacy and security,” Seljan said. “We’ve looked at our peer schools and no one really has that. Some schools have it as a submission but we’re moving that to the forefront. In particular, whatever major we propose will have courses in the philosophy department as a required course.”

The group is also hoping to establish a center for data and technology on campus. Currently, most of the High Performance Computing (HPC) and Data Science projects at the college happen in Watzek in the Digital Initiatives Office where Abbaspour and Digital Services Coordinator Jeremy McWilliams work. 

“In a lot of ways the center that is being proposed is a more formal version of the informal work we’ve already been doing out of this office,” Abbaspour said. “I hope the establishment of that center allows us to connect with more students on campus.”

This major will solve capacity issues in the Computer Science and mathematics (CSMT) department by hiring a new computer science faculty, likely with data science expertise. Drake’s Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning course had 64 people in 2018 which is far larger than any other course offered on campus and faculty have been forced to do independent studies with CSMT majors because they cannot offer enough courses. 

Although the group is still deciding how many courses to require for the major in computer science, data analytics and statistics, and cultural, social and ethical impact, there has been some consensus on the intro-level courses for the major.

“It’s pretty certain that at the beginning of the major, you would take an introductory statistics class and that could be from any of a number of departments that offer that because psychology and econ and math all have statistics courses,” Drake said. “Then you would probably take CS I, the first computer science class. And then those would feed into an introduction to data science class where you could use those techniques and build on that a little bit, and also talk about things like data visualization.”

Many other aspects of the program are still being decided on. The committee is considering planning a hack-a-thon during the winter and a data visualization competition. They also plan to seek outside funding. 

“The tech industry has all sorts of money of course and has shown some interest in spending that money on education because they can’t find enough properly trained employees,” Drake said. “There’s a huge shortage of computer scientists and data scientists out there, and so we would like to say, ‘Yes, give us some money we can train more of those people for you.’”

On June 5 the group will submit the final proposal to the SEM steering committee who will subsequently make a recommendation to President Wiewel. In July, the President will make a decision and funding letters will go out in late summer. Since the proposal includes a new curricular component, it will need to be approved by a faculty-led curriculum committee during the 2020-21 academic year and then it will need to be approved by the faculty at a faculty meeting before being implemented in 2021-22, which is the committee’s goal.

“This has been a process that has come out of years of conversations among faculty on campus,” Abbaspour said. “We really want to develop a curriculum that’s exciting and preparing students to live in this data-infused world but is also consistent with who we are and what we care about as an institution and how we want to equip students to engage with the world as they’re graduating.”

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