The College will launch a minor in data analytics this fall, giving students the ability to apply fundamental scientific principles to the analysis of large, complex data sets.
Union joins a growing number of schools who recognize the need to prepare the next generation of students for the data analytics boom that touches a wide swath of disciplines, from English to engineering to psychology.
“Data can help people verify hypotheses and make entirely new discoveries, and construct and deconstruct arguments,” said Nick Webb, assistant professor of computer science. “There is a growing need for students of all disciplines to have the skills and abilities to work with data in their field.”
Webb was among the faculty pushing for a data analytics minor. Several years ago, he and a former colleague realized that they needed to replace the Computational Methods minor, which struggled to catch on with students. The decision to drop the CM minor coincided with the rise in interest in data analytics and data science.
Nick Webb, assistant professor of computer science, works with Jonathan Hanna '20 and Justin Cohen '20, in the Center for Data Analytics in the Kelly Computing and Innovation Lab (Wold 010). The center provides students, faculty and staff with the physical space to explore data and improve data literacy, and also hosts workshops and seminars.
Soon, Webb discovered there were students and faculty already working with data across disciplines, including Tomas Dvorak in Economics, Roger Hoerl in Mathematics and Mason Stahl in Geology. With the support of Strom Thacker, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty, a group began work on elements of a data analytics minor.
“There's a rise in the number of classes that use data explicitly in the classroom, or teach techniques for data analysis,” Webb said. “Equally we see an increase in the amount of research using data, both for faculty, and in student thesis work.”
Interdisciplinary in nature, the data analytics program is designed to complement a student’s major. Core skills are programming (for acquiring and manipulating data) and statistics (for understanding the relationships contained in the data). Students also will develop skills in acquiring, learning and applying models from data, and in using those models to make predictions and visualize the results.
“We want students to make interdisciplinary connections and see the application of these skills to data from disciplines across the college,” Webb said.
Interest in the new minor is growing with students and alumni, Webb said. ReUnion last year included a forum featuring recent graduates working industries that rely on data analytics.
The minor should make students more marketable to employers in a variety of fields, including healthcare, technology, sports, government and nonprofits.
“Data analytics skills and concepts are some of the most in demand right now,” Webb said. “There is simply too much data, and too few people equipped with the understanding and skill set to process this data - to find the knowledge hidden inside.”
The introduction of a data analytics minor follows the opening last fall of the College’s new Center for Data Analytics in the Kelly Computing and Innovation Lab (Wold 010). The center provides students, faculty and staff with the physical space to explore data and improve data literacy, and also hosts workshops and seminars.
The dual focus on data analytics fits into the core mission of Union, which emphasizes the need for an education rich in visual, scientific and cultural literacy.
“We want to highlight the key concepts and skills that make up data analytics, and showcase their application to the range of disciplines within a college like ours,” Webb said. “A liberal arts college is the perfect place to be able to see and interact with this blend of concept and application.”