As recent technology has made an enormous amount of data more available, the demand for professionals who can analyze this information has skyrocketed. Now, employers across virtually every industry are seeking “data literate” candidates who have the skills to read, analyze and interpret insights from data.

A team of about 20 Cal Poly faculty across all six colleges has been collaborating since summer 2020 to launch a cross-disciplinary initiative that would expand opportunities in data science education to students from all disciplines as well as lay a pathway for more collaborative, data-driven faculty research.

The initiative was set into motion after the Office of Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education noticed a growing demand from professors to increase the presence of data science across various departments.

Since the summer, faculty worked together to draft a proposal totaling over 100 pages in length that outlines the objectives of the initiative.

“It’s been pretty intense,” marketing professor Brennan Davis said. “Pretty much summer through fall, it occupied most of my time, and I’m sure that other professors can say the same thing.”

One goal of the initiative is to help students from other areas of study who are interested in data science gain exposure through the form of general elective courses (GEs). 

Although Cal Poly offers a data science minor, the minor is intensive, comprising of 80 units, and is more accessible to statistics and computer science students who already have the minor’s prerequisites built into their major courses.

The proposed GEs would fulfill the area B requirements and would consist of a two-part series. The first would expose students to complex multivariate data that students are likely to encounter outside of the classroom and teach simple analysis methods using Excel. 

The second course will build on the first by teaching more complex analysis methods using Python and Jupyter Notebook, according to computer science and software engineering professor Alex Dekhtyar. He said he hopes to have the GE courses approved by next year.

“Everybody with a college degree should have basic access to data literacy,” Dekhtyar said.

Davis said he hopes the collaboration between the colleges will encourage efficiency and enrich students’ education. 

Davis explained that for example, students in the Orfalea College of Business (OCOB) could benefit from a coding class applied to economics. Faculty could then collaborate with computer science professors in the College of Science and Mathematics (COSAM) instead of trying to find a coding expert in OCOB.

“I think the whole initiative is going to help bring everyone together, so we can find the holes [in the curriculum] and work together,” Davis said.

Several professors have pointed out a growing demand for data literacy skills in the workforce across nearly every industry, from knowledge of simple functions in spreadsheets to complex coding software.

“Even just understanding the advanced functionality in Excel, those are skills students should have coming into the marketplace at all levels because those are now becoming screening exams at all companies these days,” Davis said.

Landscape architecture professor Miran Day said she envisions the initiative helping her students apply critical thinking and use research to propose good design solutions.

“What we try to accomplish is ‘data for all and data for good,” Day said. “Students and faculty members could help utilize the knowledge to make the community and society better.”

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