UC Berkeley should expand data science education

Alvaro Azcarraga/File

I took Statistics 133 on a whim the semester before UC Berkeley rolled out Data 8: Foundations of Data Science, the university’s first attempt at an accessible, interdisciplinary course that “combines three perspectives: inferential thinking, computational thinking, and real-world relevance.” While Statistics 133 was initially intended for statistics majors and is frequently plagued with overcrowding, Data 8 was designed from the ground up to be interdisciplinary and accessible. The course, and the larger data science initiative it spearheaded, emerged out of the realization that data science transcends more than just the field of statistics or computer science.

This is because data science has already proven its potential to powerfully transform a wide range of disciplines. In a 2015 Bloomberg article titled “Econ 101: Chicago? M.I.T.? Nope, Berkeley’s on Top” columnist Noah Smith posits the idea of a “Berkeley Reformation,” citing the achievements of legendary faculty members such as Emmanuel Saez and David Card, whose work is helping “change the very meaning of economics, from a largely theory-based form of mathematical philosophy to a data-driven science.” And according to a 2011 McKinsey & Company study, our country as a whole “could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions” by 2018.

Given the increasing importance of data science in both industry and academia, it is not surprising that waitlist sizes for introductory statistics and computer science courses such as Statistics 133 and CS 61A have grown to the hundreds. But increasing the size of these classes may be unsustainable. More importantly, the interdisciplinary nature of data science demands accessibility. Those who major strictly in the humanities and wish to gain a basic proficiency in data science should not be forced to enroll in domain-specific classes, such as CS 61A. These courses are affectionately known as “weeder classes” for good reason — they are incentivized to discourage students from pursuing certain majors. In fact, much of the content in introductory programming courses such as CS 61A is not immediately relevant to those who want to work with data in a research (or a scientific) setting. Unlike Data 8, CS 61A and even Statistics 133 do not teach inferential thinking or even basic statistics. Though it is true that many of the other concepts these courses teach have important applications in data science, the concepts these courses omit are absolutely critical for any foundation in data science.

The inaccessibility and obscurity of “learning data science” at the undergraduate level is worse in upper division computer science and statistics courses. For example, enrolling in upper division computer science as a noncomputer science major can be extremely difficult, as priority is given to those who have declared the major. Fortunately, faculty members are racing to introduce follow-up courses to Data 8 such as Data 100: Principles and Techniques of Data Science, and there are nearly a dozen two-unit “connector courses” to match domain knowledge with data science. According to EECS professor John DeNero, “UC Berkeley is at the forefront of data science at the undergraduate level.” Much of this progress, however, depends on whether the Academic Senate votes to allocate resources for a College of Computing and Data Sciences in the coming months. This college would house associated majors that currently do not have an institutional home (such as Cognitive Science) while cross-listing existing courses across various departments into a logical, intuitive map, making it easy for students to navigate the data science landscape in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.

Opponents of this plan might point to the university’s $150 million structural deficit as a reason for why we literally cannot afford to make this decision. This is a valid concern. But doubling down on the progress we have made in order to execute a vision for the 21st century has the potential to attract a deluge of outside funding. Additionally, because everything is being built from the ground up, exploring alternative revenue streams such as online education might still be on the table. While I realize I do not represent all of the students who would be affected by the creation of this college, I owe the chance of being able to participate in something I am truly passionate about — public policy analysis — to a few random decisions that gave me a makeshift foundation in data science. I got lucky, but future students should not have to rely on luck to have the opportunity to pursue their passions. If we make our voices heard and let the university know this is something the campus community supports, we can turn data science at UC Berkeley into a gift that continues to give for generations to come.

Jerry Lin is a UC Berkeley student.

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