By Bryan Hay

From the steps recorded by the fitness tracker on your wrist, to political polls, or the 1,050 megabytes per second of information collected by the massive Hadron Collider, there’s no escaping the creep of data into every corner of daily life.

Responding to the reality that data touches nearly every academic field, Lafayette will offer a data science minor starting this fall, with a focus on what data analysis means on a liberal arts campus.

“Many programs are focused on new techniques and how to approach data science,” says Chun Wai Liew, associate professor of computer science, who will chair the new program. “We’re focused on what do you teach in the liberal arts setting about data science.”

The overwhelming issue these days is what to do when confronted with staggering amounts of data.

“It turns out that you need a whole raft of new techniques,” Liew says. “You have so much data that the old standard methods don’t work. When you have that much data, how do you analyze it? There’s also a different question: How do you distribute that data? You cannot look at every piece of data. You have to start looking at statistical methods to determine likelihoods and trends.”

The new minor will include key components on the ethics of gathering and using data and the visualization of data, and initially involve faculty from computer science, mathematics, economics, philosophy, and biology.

Students will be engaged in classroom conversations about how data is used and can be manipulated unintentionally or for strategic or even nefarious purposes, while discussions around visualization will involve how data is presented.

“Data itself is neutral, but how you present it is not. The person who applies the science and compiles the data is biased,” Liew says. “It’s one of the big problems we have in society—where is the truth in all of this? For example, there’s lots of data about heart attacks. Ninety percent of that data is from males. Are you going to predict how women are going to have heart attacks using that data? There is a bias in all data. You need to recognize it.”

When consuming data, it’s fair game to question those who disseminated it, he notes.

“And so we want to make students aware. Not that we can teach them the golden way, but we want students to be aware of bias,” Liew says. “When someone throws up a chart, we should be able to say, ‘Ah, how did you manipulate this?’”

“Students who are interdisciplinary and open to applying data science to whatever field they’re in, whether it’s the performing arts or political science, will find value in this new program,” Liew says.

Those who want to pursue the minor will be able to work toward it starting in the fall. Short-term goals include having 10 to 12 students taking prerequisite courses such as MATH 110 – Statistical Concepts each year. Evidence of success would be seeing a history major in two to three years digging into data to support a project or thesis and exposing other students to the opportunities in the data science program.

“That’s a win,” he says. “I’m hopeful we’ll have a success with all the interdisciplinary connections at Lafayette.”

Categorized in: Academic News, Computer Science, Data Science, Featured News, News and Features
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