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W&M launches bachelor’s in Data Science, Jump Start summer program

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    Data is pervasive:  Hongmin Yu '20 combs through data produced by a mass spectrometer during her work in a chemistry lab in 2018.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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This summer, as educators around the world prepared for teaching a fall semester remotely amid pandemic, faculty from William & Mary’s Data Science program already had a head start – or rather, a jump start.

In May, William & Mary launched Jump Start Data Science. The program is an accelerated minor in Data Science, taught remotely from late May to early August. During the summer, students take the first four of the six classes required for a minor in data science, and complete the remained two courses for the minor the following academic year.

“My class was always intended to be offered as a remote learning opportunity for students,” said Matt Haug, associate professor of philosophy, who taught Ethics and Data Science this summer. Haug designed his virtual class last spring, through a course development seminar offered by W&M’s Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation

“Even before the pandemic, I was preparing to teach remotely,” Haug said.

The Jump Start program offers a total of 15 credits, which can be used toward a minor or toward the university’s newly SCHEV-approved bachelor of science degree in data science. William & Mary started its data science program in 2017 as a minor and a self-designed major. 

Matthias Leu, director of the program, said William & Mary graduated 42 data science self-designed majors since 2019. The first Jump Start class of 27 students completed summer coursework in August. 

“We are very excited to launch the B.S. in data science this fall,” Leu said. “This allows W&M to offer a degree that is of great interest to students from across disciplines and prepares students to be competitive in the job market. Judging on the basis of student enrollment this fall, with a record enrollment of over 90 students in the Introduction to Data Science course, we are pleased to see that students show great interest in this degree.” 

Data science is an interdisciplinary program at William & Mary, primarily drawing on faculty from the natural and social sciences, while also incorporating courses in linguistics, philosophy and communication. Coursework embraces programming, modeling and ethics, giving students an understanding of the moral implications of working with algorithms and big data. 

"A data scientist must be able to adapt their skills to a wide variety of situations and disciplines," said Ron Smith, a lecturer of Data Science, who taught the course Reasoning Under Uncertainty this summer. "As such, it's important for a data scientist to not only have a solid blend of mathematical and computational skills, but also have a keen eye for detail and be able to communicate their results to their audience."

He explained that Jump Start students were exposed to a lot of information over the course of the summer, ranging from introductory programming to learning how to program convulutional neural networks and giving presentations on their results.

“I would say data science at William & Mary is a kind of microcosm of data science itself,” said Tyler Frazier, lecturer of data science, who taught Applied Machine Learning for the Jump Start program, where he introduced students to the worlds of computer vision, natural language processing and probabilistic deep learning.

“There is so much demand in the marketplace for generalist data science skills. I would argue that the proliferation of data in the world today makes data science applicable to every discipline,” he said. “Data Science can serve as an excellent investigative pathway for developing and forming the research question any student may decide to pursue through the course of their academic and professional career. After completing the Jump Start program, students will find their skills as undergraduate researchers in high demand.”

Sarena Oberoi ’23 decided to join the Jump Start program after taking Frazier's DATA 150 class last spring. She said over the summer she came to appreciate how applicable data science is for many different fields.

“I am interested in the public health field, so I’m excited to use some of the data science methods I learned going forward,” Oberoi said. “Since I plan on going into the dental field, I hope to use convolutional neural networks and other methods to help distinguish different dental problems.”

Oberoi’s Jump Start classmate Devika Puri ’23 also plans to enter health field. For her final project this summer, Puri built a convolutional neural network to classify cardiomegaly (an enlarged heart condition) in women, based on chest X-ray scans. 

“As a premedical student, I’m fascinated by how data science applies to public health and have seen the value in this field firsthand with the COVID-19 crisis,” Puri said. “An experience I thoroughly enjoyed this summer was using the programming skills we developed to pull COVID-19 data from the Virginia Department of Health to create graphs and calculate 7-day averages of coronavirus cases. It felt like we were real data scientists working on analyzing the pandemic data.”

Faculty may have been prepared to teach remotely, but nothing could have prepared them for teaching during a pandemic, explained Michele King, lecturer of speech at William & Mary.

“I would say one of our big successes this summer was the ability to cultivate relationships and build community,” said King, who taught Public Speaking this summer. “We did regular ‘pulse checks’ and talked about overall wellness and stresses in dealing with this transition.”

King said having a relatively small number of students in the program helped foster a sense of community. They also had the shared experience of taking the same courses at the same time.   

“What is nice about this program is there’s a sense of cohesiveness because all the students are going through this together,” said Dana Willner, lecturer of computer science, who teaches Programming for Data Science, the first course offered in Jump Start. They have a shared experience with a course and they know that they're all working towards a common goal. That led to an overall sense of collaboration.”

Willner said that even with a small group of students, the range of disciplines represented in the inaugural class was impressive. The students were majoring in a wide diversity of fields, such as business, psychological sciences and biology.

“I'm actually a molecular biologist by training,” Willner said. “A lot of the work I did was high-throughput DNA sequencing, so I did a lot of programming, but I don't have a Ph.D in computer science. It’s in biology. I tell my students this because I want them to understand how accessible and applicable data science is for everyone.”

Luke Denoncourt ’22 was part of Jump Start’s inaugural class and is double majoring in biology and data science. He says the program provided him with technical skills that once intimidated him. 

“The most memorable aspect of the summer program is making and operating neural networks,” he said. “Before this summer, I only knew the cliché view that they are super sophisticated techniques for incredibly smart people. Now I have a real understanding and appreciation for these tools.” 

While computer programming is fundamental to the coursework, Jump Start places equal weight on critical thinking, with courses in ethics and public speaking. For example, this summer Haug taught students about the psychological theories underpinning the spread of misinformation online. 

“We took a hard look at motivated reasoning and how that can lead to false beliefs and exacerbate false beliefs,” Haug said. “We also studied models of communication communities, which actually originated in field of economics, but philosophers of science have used them to talk about the spread of false beliefs.”

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Haug taught his students about algorithmic bias, specifically algorithmic racial bias and how they influence policing.

“There are algorithms that are used to predict things like recidivism,” Haug explained. “They use all these different data points and we looked at the ways in which they exacerbate existing racial biases in the criminal justice system.”

Throughout the summer, the program included an ongoing section of public speaking and offered  students the opportunity to connect with a variety of employers who recruit at William & Mary. The goal was to give students real world experience with technical communication, King explained.

“You can have the most brilliant ideas, but they won't walk themselves,” she said. “No matter what career path you choose, you will eventually have to stand in front of an audience to present your research, business concept, or proposal. In my class, students learn how to organize their message in an engaging and compelling way.”

As part of the program, students participated in professional development workshops on topics including resume and cover letter writing and interviewing. They also met with organization representatives to learn about trends in data science, internships and full-time positions, the application process and how to stand out as a candidate.

“It was exciting and encouraging to see real examples of what I could be doing in the next five to ten years,” said Maddie Sharpe ’23. “One reason I love data science is because it is flexible and easily applicable in today's world. I think the skills I have learned this summer will always be useful to me no matter what I do, and that’s exactly what I need right now.”