New emphasis on data science valuable to students in all fields

Chancellor's Corner

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Rachael Garner/File

Universities are occasionally accused — especially by those who see technology as predestined to disrupt all traditional modes of doing business — of being too resistant to change. Our learning environments, some say, look the same as they did 500 years ago, with approaches to pedagogy mired in threadbare tradition and hidebound custom. The university is committed only to the preservation of its own authority and practices, say the critics, noting that professors still actually don medieval robes (O.K., admittedly, this last part is true … but only for special occasions!).

The reality is that change and innovation are unceasing at pre-eminent universities such as UC Berkeley. We are constantly reinventing our teaching methods to meet new student needs and redesigning our physical spaces to accommodate new technology. And, within the greater framework of a liberal education, we are continually re-evaluating our academic offerings to ensure that we can provide each generation of students with the skills and abilities they need to flourish once they graduate.

On this last front, one particularly salient change here on our campus was the launch of the Berkeley Data Science Education Program (DSEP) this past semester. Spearheaded by a diverse collection of faculty from across the university, the program kicked off to much acclaim this fall when it introduced a set of brand new undergraduate course offerings. Now in its second semester, the program is building on its initial success and growing rapidly.

UC Berkeley’s decision to build the DSEP sprang from a fundamental perception about how the swift and ongoing rise in the power of computer technology — coupled with the increasing digitization of social lives, industry, commerce and archives — is changing the requirements of a proper liberal education. A surge in the volume, variety and availability of structured and semi-structured data means that an ability to navigate within this data-rich world — to find, analyze, interpret and think critically about data — is rapidly becoming a necessity for citizens in the 21st century, no matter their professional interests or academic pursuits.

To address this need, this fall the DSEP debuted a foundational course in data science, inviting students to learn to manipulate information with the programming language Python, to interpret data through visualizations and to make statistical predictions from large data sets. Offered alongside this class were six distinct “connector” courses, each providing the chance to apply data skills to the unique challenges of a specific topic area. The connector courses extended the study of data across scientific, humanistic and artistic disciplines, asking students to use their new skills in data analysis to examine topics such as race and policing, health and human behavior, or how the mind works.

Structuring the DSEP in this way, our faculty have created a system that doesn’t simply channel more undergraduates into computer science and related fields, but instead asks students to apply computational methods, strategies for working with data and modes of analytical and inferential thinking to the disciplines of their choice. Enrolled in different connector courses, students apply the methods of data science to dramatically diverse topics: A student interested in government, for example, might use ACLU data to determine whether jury panels in Alameda County reflect the racial composition of the local population, while a conservation and resource studies major might apply the same basic technical skills to explore how combining historical records with modern ship-tracking technology can help countries tackle overfishing.

Halfway through last semester, when I sat down with enrolled students for a discussion of the program, they praised the accessibility of classes and this flexible, applied approach. Course evaluations have since reinforced those comments. This spring, in response to increased demand, we doubled the number of connector courses to include topic areas such as “Data Science and the Smart City” and “Data and Ethics.” We also created space for five times as many students as were enrolled in the fall pilot. Spring classes filled up anyway — a testament to student interest in this area as well as the success of the fall debut.

Across all of higher education, faculty and administrators are increasingly recognizing the need to treat data literacy as a core competency for liberal education, and are developing programs designed to weave computational thinking and data inference skills into the fabric of courses across the traditional disciplines. Just as learning to write well is useful for English majors and engineers alike, so too is data literacy increasingly recognized as a necessity for everyone, regardless of their field of study. Just as important, we also believe it is necessary for everyone to learn to think about the ethical dimensions of data collection and analysis, to ensure that our rapidly evolving technical capabilities result in greater freedoms and do not instead precipitate an Orwellian future.

Universities across the country are taking note of the experiment we are conducting here at UC Berkeley, and for good reason: I believe our data science education program, while nascent, is exceptional at presenting the building blocks of a data science skillset, effective at crossing disciplinary lines and will readily ensure that students retain flexibility in how they approach this new competency. While choice is an essential part of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate distribution requirements and we have no plans to require the study of data science, it is my hope that every student who wants to engage with this important discipline has the opportunity to do so.
Without a doubt, as we move toward a “fully metered” society, with data being collected everywhere, there will be profound effects on the way we live our lives and carry out our careers. A university such as UC Berkeley, with its proud tradition of challenging and questioning the status quo, will never ignore such fundamental change. Instead we will embrace it, study it and invite our students to explore it — equipping our students with the skills and competencies necessary not just for success, but for making a real difference in the world of the future.

Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion piece by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

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