Professor Ellen Seljan, data science librarians threw event to increase students interest in minor
On Feb. 11, Lewis & Clark’s first annual “Hackathon” took place in the Aubrey R. Watzek library classroom. This event was hosted by Watzek data librarians and Associate Professor of Political Science Ellen Seljan.
Colleges and high schools across the country host and compete in “hackathons,” which are events where programmers can get together and collaborate on solving problems using data and technology. For LC’s Hackathon, students competed in teams of two to create visual representations using Watzek circulation data. This event is part of the expansion of the college’s growing data science program.
According to Seljan, the Hackathon was hosted to increase interest in the new data science minor, which offers classes in computer science, data analysis and programming.
“The data science program is new, and it’s also interdisciplinary,” Seljan said.”We really do want to have frequent intercurrent extracurricular activities in order to bring students together.”
On the day of the Hackathon, 14 students met at the Watzek library classroom for three hours to put together data visualizations using Watzek circulation data. The event was accessible to students of all skill levels and coding backgrounds. In fact, Many of the students who attended are taking Seljan’s intro to data science class.
Because students came from various coding backgrounds and skill levels, they used a variety of programs to create the visualizations. “People use Excel, Stata, R, Python and also data romper, which is an online tool,” Seljan said.
Head of Digital Services Jeremy McWilliams compiled the data to use. The dataset included everything that students typically check out from the library, including books, headsets, and magazines.
“The library system Watzek uses has a lot of data, so mainly it was a matter of choosing which fields might be interesting for students to work with and would allow them a variety of questions to ask,” McWilliams said via email.
Students worked in teams of two in order to make a data visualization within the three-hour window. They also had the help of Seljan and three data librarians, Science & Data Services Librarian Parvaneh Abbaspour, Digital & Data Science Specialist Ethan Davis and McWilliams. The students had free reign to use the data from the set McWilliams compiled to make different visualizations.
McWilliams said that the organizers decided to use Watzek circulation data because of the library staff’s cooperation with the data science minor.
“I think this was Ellen’s idea, originally,” McWilliams said. “Library staff have played a role in helping to develop and support the Data Science minor, so maybe our involvement inspired the idea.”
Connor Smyth ’24 and Alex Denuzzo ’26 made up the winning team and won $100 for their visualization about how COVID-19 affected Watzek circulation data. The pair did not know each other prior to the event and were randomly paired together.
“They actually didn’t even know the same programming languages,” Seljan said.“Alex knows Stata, and Connor is in my class learning R, and so they actually ended up working in Excel a lot. But they found a way to make an excellent graphic.”
Overall, Seljan said that the event was a success and expressed hope that the event would continue in the future.
Seljan also emphasized that it was empowering for students to work with real data and to see a data visualization of something real they interact with daily over at Watzek.
“Everyone had a good time. We learned something new about the data. People seem to express interest in coming back,” Seljan said.
McWilliams explained that Watzek and the data science program have an important relationship.
“We’ve carved out a role over the years in supporting the faculty and students with computer programming and data literacy,” McWilliams said. “So, supporting data science has been kind of a natural fit.”
Abbaspour is the data science specialist librarian and focuses on data literacy and exploring data. She was present at the event for student support and learned quite a bit about the data herself.
“I actually gained insights from the visualizations they produced and I was happy to, as someone who’s worked in the past with Ellen, to think about this curriculum and this program,” Abbaspour said. “It was really exciting to see it realized and to see how enthusiastic the students were about pursuing this new curricular opportunity.”
Seljan hopes this event had a positive impact on the data science program.
“The mission of the data science program here at Lewis & Clark is really to, to kind of use data science tools for the social good,” Seljan said. “So we’re hoping to get datasets from a larger Portland community and, you know, organizations and issues that students care about.”
Overall, Seljan and the librarians thought the event went really well. The goal of the Hackathon was to get LC students interested in the data science program and according to them, that goal was achieved.
“I was so surprised by just how well the hackathon worked for students with all levels of experience, across different platforms analysis,” Abbaspour said.“Platforms and different points in their sort of journey and curricular journey like freshmen, it seemed like everyone was able to engage with the event in a really successful way.”
Future plans for Hackathon include changing up the data set and expanding to competitions other than data visualization. McWilliams encourages anyone interested in data science to attend next year’s event.