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Dickinson Announces New Major in Data Analytics

Old West

Cutting-edge field offers an approach that’s ‘uniquely multidisciplinary’

by Tony Moore

In the wake of Dickinson’s Revolutionary Challenge—a high-level idea competition that generated nearly 50 proposals—the college has just approved its newest major, in data analytics. It’s a major designed to allow future leaders to apply the power of data to the world’s most complex problems across myriad fields and experiences.

And while the discipline of data analysis lies at the intersection of computer science, mathematics and statistics, the new major will feature additional multidisciplinary content to form a rigorous program that’s even more relevant to an ever-changing world.

In other words, it’s a very Dickinson major.

Data Science and the Liberal Arts

“Data is everywhere—it’s key to our understanding climate change, health care, the pandemic, artificial intelligence, globalization, privacy and security and much more,” says Professor of Mathematics David Richeson, who originally brought the seed of the data analytics proposal to a group of math and computer science faculty members back in 2019. “Data transcends the traditional disciplinary boundaries, [and] we think that a liberal-arts college is the best place to train future data scientists.”

Emerging from a winning Revolutionary Challenge proposal, the new major looks to be the perfect marriage of Dickinson’s liberal-arts foundation and its future-forward approach. According to the proposal, the data analytics major is “inherently interdisciplinary” and will create “competence in technical skills and content expertise but transcends vocational learning to achieve high levels of critical thinking, analysis, understanding and communication.”

And as Richeson notes, “rather than just teaching a set of technical skills, we prepare our students to work with data ethically, to construct data-driven arguments and to be able to effectively communicate with stakeholders.”

Across campus

Less than a dozen liberal-arts colleges across the country offer a major in data analytics or similar field, and Dickinson looks to set this one apart in a few ways.

First, Dickinson’s program requires a course in the philosophy and ethics of data, intended to help students think about issues such as privacy, security, reproducibility, limitations and integrity. Second, an experiential learning opportunity—through a hands-on experience such as an internship, independent research, community project or on-campus partnership—is an important part of the data analytics major.

It also includes a three-course sequence in another field to provide students with a foundation “to know what models are appropriate to use and what are the key assumptions for analysis in a discipline outside of data science.” Rounding it all out is an optional study-abroad component, another aspect of the program that brings a powerful facet of Dickinson’s ethos to the table.

In the classroom, students will learn how to communicate the inputs and outputs of analysis across teams and skill sets and engage with subject-matter experts in problem solving with data—all with an emphasis on written communication through a multicourse writing-in-the-discipline requirement.

And it’s not just students and a small handful of academic departments who will be diving in. Faculty members across disciplines—from biology, chemistry and environmental science to international business & management, psychology and sociology—are interested in teaching data-oriented courses. And administrative departments such as athletics, admissions and the Center for Sustainability Education have also expressed interest in working with students on data-driven projects.

Student interest and trajectories

But of course, it’s all about students, and the new major comes in the wake of intense student interest in the subject: More students signed up for a recent Introduction to Data Science course than there were seats available in that semester and the next, despite the course not being advertised or required for any major. And in a recent survey, current computer science, mathematics and quantitative economics majors reported high levels of interest in taking a data science course, believing that the major will positively affect Dickinson students—and the wider world.

“A liberal-arts education that prepares students for effective communication, a nuanced global perspective and rational and ethical decision-making cannot be complete without the ability to meaningfully comprehend, critique and construct data-driven arguments,” says Associate Professor of Economics Emily Marshall, one of the faculty members who proposed the data science initiative as part of the Revolutionary Challenge. “The data analytics major we propose does just that and can prepare students for all kinds of postgraduate experiences, including a wide range of graduate programs, career paths and civic engagement opportunities.”

Nuts and bolts

When it launches in the fall 2021 semester, the proposed data analytics curriculum will feature 13 courses:

  • four in data analytics
  • one in computer science
  • four courses in mathematics (one of which can be in economics)
  • one course in the philosophy of data
  • and a three-course disciplinary focus that allows students to apply data analysis to a particular subject area.

Taken together, the facets of the new major create a holistic approach to the study of data and will also create a culture of collaboration across campus, facilitate conversations about using data, and develop a community of educators and students interested in asking and answering questions with data.

“The prevalence, quantity and availability of data is constantly increasing in both volume and complexity and is at the center of today’s greatest experiences and challenges,” says Marshall. “Academic disciplines, business models, public health plans, ideas of social justice, community programs and governmental operations have evolved and transformed to seize the opportunities of data-driven environments. And the interdisciplinarity of the data analytics major at Dickinson will help students thrive in a variety of settings.”

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Published March 10, 2021

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