New data science major draws students to Jewell and addresses industry need

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Responding to rapidly developing data acquisition and processing methods within industry and student demand, William Jewell College designed a data science major and minor program. The programs are being offered for the first time during the 2018-2019 academic year and have been popular with both new and returning students.

Data science is a field in which professionals manipulate, interpret and create data sets in order to extract useful information and insights. Data scientists work in fields including technology, marketing, corporate work, consulting, pharmaceuticals and health-care, government, academia and more.

Dr. Maggie Sherer, professor of physics and the introductory data science course at Jewell, says offering the new major was prompted by asking students what they are interested in and analyzing industry needs.

“We’d for years been hearing students wanted more options for programming and computer science. But we were also looking at [what are] the industry needs for jobs? Data science is just a rising field where there are a lot of local as well as national companies that are looking for those data scientists. We talked to people at H&R Block and Cerner and a bunch of local industries to say what were those skills that they needed? They did need people who could program, but they also need people who can do statistics and interpret data,” Sherer said.

The major includes a core and an emphasis. In the core, students will take classes in programming, statistics, data visualization, data mining and modeling. The core also entails that students have an internship and take a final capstone course in which they will come back together and work on real-world problems. In addition to the core, every student in the major will choose an emphasis. They will choose from business intelligence, mathematics and modeling, bioinformatics, economics analysis or molecular design, which is a chemistry track. These emphases were chosen according to student interest and industry need.

Troy Williams, admissions counselor for STEM, said the major has been well received by prospective students and parents.

“There is excitement from prospective students and their parents.  We have also received positive feedback regarding the areas of emphasis: bioinformatics, business intelligence, economic analysis, math and modeling and molecular design.  This has resonated particularly well with high school counselors as they provide college and career guidance to students. They are better able to paint a picture of how data can be used across various industries,” Williams said.

According to the College’s course catalog, “Graduates of the program will be able to: 1. Construct data files using advanced statistical and data programming techniques to solve practical problems in data science and analytics; 2. Create predictive models using statistical, data mining and programming techniques, and evaluate and interpret such models to support fact-based decision making; 3. Communicate and interpret quantitative information, including appropriate use of written, oral and visual media; and 4. Translate analytic results into clear, actionable insights.”

The major is approaching data science from a liberal arts perspective. At other schools, students have to know two programming languages and data structures take mathematics through differential equations.

“We’ll certainly have those core requirements but they’re not going to be the people who do fundamental computer programming. They’re going to be the people who can do enough programming that they can communicate between the programmers, the data analysts, and the managers. So we’re hoping that we really focus on their ability to interpret and make decisions with data,” Sherer said.

Several other schools are also in the process of creating a data science major for undergraduates. Jewell is the first that Sherer knows of to begin offering it. Other institutions already had graduate work in data science but not undergraduate. At other undergraduate institutions, the major has developed out of the computer science department. Jewell’s liberal arts approach hopes to differentiate the skills and experiences of data science graduates. 

Sherer says student interest in the major is encouraging. There are, at the time of the interview, five declared first-year majors, which is promising for a new major. In addition to incoming student interest, several upperclassmen have displayed interest in the courses offered and in the minor. The first class of the major, the introductory data science course, has 17 total students. There has also been significant interest in certain parts or classes of the major, Sherer mentioned interest in data visualization specifically.

Data science is a fast-growing field which the Harvard Business Journal the “sexiest job of the 21st century.” Demand for professionals has surpassed supply, which has and still may lead to constraints on various sectors of industry. There is a predicated supply-demand gap of forty to fifty percent in 2018.

Data scientist was also named the “#1 best job in America” in 2018 for the third year in a row by Glassdoor’s annual report. Behind California and the Northeast, the Midwest region offers the third highest salaries for data scientists. Additionally, each year of experience in the field offers an average increase in salary of $2000 to $2500.

According to the department of data science to the University of Notre Dame, advances in data science are likely to come from the ability of data scientists to effectively communicate, empathize and think ethically.

They highlight specifically liberal arts skills as necessary, including a “strong foundation in math and statistics, and a deep understanding of the techniques they are using; the ability to communicate data insights to non-technical stakeholders; and strong critical thinking skills and a solid ethical framework that guides them in performing and managing their analytic activities.”

Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto. 

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