Dirks hosts fireside chat on trajectory of pilot data science class

Mitzi Perez/Staff

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As part of a fireside chat hosted by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, about 20 students gathered at University House on Wednesday to give their input on the trajectory of a pilot data science class.

The four-unit class, titled “Foundations of Data Science,” entered its preliminary planning stages in fall 2014, involving professors in fields ranging from computer science to history. The curriculum was finalized at the start of the current semester, and faculty are now using students’ experiences to determine the future of the course.

“I’ve been teaching, one way or another, for about 30 years, and I have never been so excited,” said Ani Adhikari, the principal instructor for the course, during the chat. “For the courage you have shown to take a course on spec, we are very, very grateful.”

Many students in attendance praised the real-world applications of the lecture material, noting how they had applied the statistical and coding skills learned from the course to internships and other classes.

Those taking the course who were previously inexperienced with computer science brought up the complex nature of coding but said they appreciated the difficulty.

“This course actually made me interested in (coding) just because it was data science. … It included the concepts of stats, which I like,” said Shreya Agarwal, a campus sophomore majoring in economics and statistics, during the chat. “Even though I’m struggling with the coding part, I take it as a challenge.”

Amy Huynh, a research assistant at the Berkeley Institute of Data Science who took part in the chat, inquired whether the viewpoints expressed during the meeting and the student makeup of the class were representative enough of the diverse student body.

“I also wonder whose identities are not represented in this room,” Huynh said during the chat. “I wonder if there’s any way to kind of bolster that representation.”

Near the end of the roughly two-hour fireside chat, Dirks directly asked the students about the future of the data science course. Many responded that they would like to see it expanded to include more humanities majors.

David Culler, the former electrical engineering and computer sciences department chair and one of seven faculty members who played a role in the course’s formation, said one of the best ways to integrate humanities students into the class would be to initiate more “connector courses” — two-unit, area-specific classes that test students’ application of material covered in “Foundations of Data Science.”

He also said that allowing the class to fulfill a breadth requirement would be “a beautiful in-between” of its current stage as an elective and its potential future status as a requirement.

“(Establishing the class as a breadth) doesn’t say, ‘One must do this’ — it says, ‘One needs to do one of a variety of things,’ ” Culler said. “Our view is: Grow it in response to student demand. It’s years down the line that you would ask, ‘Should it actually be a required element?’ ”

While not extensively discussed, the possibility of transitioning the class into an official major or minor program is an end goal, according to Culler.

Contact Andrea Platten at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @andreaplatten.