Data is everywhere these days, routinely touching our lives as we surf the web, use our phone, drive our car or do any number of tasks. But data literacy and coding are usually relegated to the precincts of computer science departments.
RU-N is seeking to change that by teaching basic data skills to undergraduates from all disciplines and, in the process, making what is considered esoteric knowledge accessible to a much broader group of students.
This spring, a new course called “Everyday Data” is being taught through the Department of Arts, Culture and Media. Professor Patrick Shafto, the Henry Rutgers Term Chair in Data Science, conceived the course with his lab assistant Terri Beckles and Dr. Lucille Booker, a computational linguist who works for the Chancellor’s Office and teaches in the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science.
“Data science spans all of the majors on campus. All students would benefit from being able to understand, aggregate and communicate data, as well as do some basic programming,” says Shafto. “We want to ensure that students learn some basic programming and data literacy so they’re prepared for the workforce of the 21st century.”
The goal is to make data science relevant to the lives of all students. To that end, “Everyday Data” projects this semester involve not only collecting and cleaning datasets, along with coding and plotting data in the computer language Python, but also videography and data visualization so students can develop a compelling data narrative that builds from and is supported by visual representations of data.
We want to ensure that students learn some basic programming and data literacy so they’re prepared for the workforce of the 21st century.
“Students will have the opportunity to present their data narrative in video form, allowing those learning coding for first time to bring in their artistic skills,” says Booker. “We want to strive for this balance as we develop students into data-informed decision makers.”
The course was originally developed in conjunction with the Honors Living-Learning Community for its STEAM cohort. Seventeen HLLC students are enrolled, along with students from across campus, including Arts & Sciences and Business majors.
Guest speakers from several RU-N labs and departments, as well as companies such as Apple and American Express, will demonstrate how they use data in their work.
“We want to expose our students to the possibilities of data and programming and show where those skills could take them,” says Shafto. “There is a lot of industry demand for this skill set, and our goal is to help students make an informed choice regarding their future.”
“Everyday Data” is also was designed as a co-teaching and mentoring effort to develop and train emerging instructors of data science. This semester, Dr. Booker is working with Terri Beckles, a recent RU-N graduate in computer science who works in Shafto’s lab and is co-teaching the course.
The idea, according to Booker, is to create a pipeline of post-baccalaureate students who are well prepared for graduate school or industry jobs involving data science.
“This is an important part of our data-science education initiative and a good model for universities now,” says Booker. “We hope to branch out into internships for these recent graduates as well and are talking with a number of companies now.”
Beckles, who has a degree in photography from Rutgers–New Brunswick as well, brings the best of both worlds—visual art and data science—to the students taking “Everyday Data.” She’s being duly rewarded by the experience.
“It’s great seeing students with no programming background complete full Colab notebooks in Python, turn them into mini-narratives of data, and be able to analyze data,” says Beckles. “Just seeing them master these concepts each day has been rewarding.”
Shafto, who will be one of the guest speakers for “Everyday Data,” likes what he’s seeing of the course so far. He and Dr. Booker are excited to expand data science offerings.
“We need to educate students to enter a world that’s very different from the one I grew up in, one of algorithms, data and computer programming merging with daily existence, as it’s already doing with Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like,” he says. “It’s great to see this happening at RU-N.”