Macalester announces new data science minor


Celia Heudebourg

data scienceMacalester’s Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (MSCS) has announced a new data science minor.

Data science has just recently emerged as a field of study. The term itself is only about 30 years old. Yet, today, few question its importance and prominence in research.

David Shuman is the Associate MSCS Professor who helped build this minor for Macalester. He explained that “data science is about taking statistical knowledge to analyze data and merging it with some computer science skills.” Shuman added more specifically, that is requires fetching the data, cleaning the data and what he called “overall hacking skills” to present the findings in an appealing and understandable manner.

The Macalester data science minor is constructed around three areas of study. Students pursuing the minor must take two computer science courses, two statistics courses and two courses within another domain of expertise. The MSCS department has already listed several areas students might further focus on within the minor including: data-driven journalism, bioinformatics and political analytics.

“Our intention is to have it be very open,” Shuman said. “This is just a preliminary list of things we thought naturally fit, but it’s totally open for students to propose their own ideas.”

Beyond the course requirements, a final, integrative essay must be completed prior to the last semester before graduation. This essay takes the form of a project proposal meant to incite students to reflect on how they would practically apply what they have learned after graduation.

The domain knowledge requirement is really what sets this minor apart from data science programs at other schools. Not only is the data science field rarely offered at the undergraduate level, but even at the master’s or doctorate level, programs are usually only made up of statistics and computer science classes.

Tom Halverson, the MSCS department Chair, said, “I think the important thing about the domain knowledge is that big massive data sets are appearing everywhere and it’s really crucial to be able to know what are the sorts of questions you are looking for in that domain and what should the answers look like and how should they be expressed so that people in the domain can understand them.”

“If you are analyzing voting data for political polling you need to know something about politics,” Shuman said. “Or you need to know something about neuroscience if you want to analyze data about the brain.”

Halverson said he had heard of five or ten other liberal arts colleges who have been interested in this new minor. “Lots of places are really interested in emulating it. We are one of the first undergraduate places to have a data science degree, certainly among liberal art colleges.”

When discussing why they chose to help implement this minor at Macalester, both Halverson and Shuman mentioned student interest. Shuman said that “among the students graduating last year, many were adamant that this was a good idea.”

Many in the MSCS department have noticed that many of their classes have seen increasing enrollment rates. “Probably half of the graduating student body take our Intro to Stats course so, I think that’s a good display of people who are not necessarily math and science majors who are still interested in learning those skills,” said Shuman.

Halverson also explained that implementing this major was relatively easy given the several areas of study that already make up the department. Furthermore, the department seemed to be evolving in this direction anyways.

“It just really naturally fit what we were doing, so it was a really easy decision to make. I think we were moving in this direction with our new hires. They all have strengths in this field,” Halverson said.

Shuman also pointed to the fact that the department was conscious about being resource-neutral. “We didn’t want to add courses, or put extra pressure on the department,” he said.

“We were teaching courses like this already, but this is a chance for students to get recognized with a minor for putting together these three skill areas in one package,” Halverson said. “I think it’s a really nice way for students who aren’t necessarily in this department but who are doing something else to combine these skills in a way that will be helpful for graduate school or finding a career.”

Within the first few days of the semester, one student had already enrolled in the minor. Both Halverson and Shuman expect this student is only the first of many, as this field holds great promise for the future.