New Data Science Minor Launches at Scripps

Associate Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Data Science Michael Spezio has long mentored students at the intersection of both data-driven natural and social sciences and computer science. “In the last four to five years, it became more evident that many students who want to pursue majors in all academic divisions also want a grounding in computational methods that speak to their interests and that can enhance their opportunities for inquiry and for making a difference,” he says.

Heeding this increased student interest and mindful of trends in how data is analyzed and implemented across fields and industries, this fall, Scripps instituted a data science (DS) minor, one of the few offered at liberal arts colleges nationwide.

“Scripps’ data science minor is novel and is a strong contrast to most DS programs in the liberal arts and at R1 institutions,” says Spezio, who co-created the DS minor at Scripps. “Our DS minor allows students to develop their expertise in data science in relation to their chosen majors.”

Indeed, industries as far ranging as medicine, marketing and communications, and transportation rely on the power of data to inform decision making and drive innovation. “This is sort of ‘the wave of the future,’” says Associate Professor of Mathematics Winston Ou, the other co-creator of the minor. “Every field is going to be, if it isn’t already, influenced by data science. If you’re a politics major and you can gather, analyze, and interpret data sets for yourself, then you have a huge advantage.”

“If a literature student, for example, has a novel idea about an author or community of writers from reading deeply into one or two texts, that same student can now access all of the writings of that author or community and develop approaches to explore that idea via computational linguistics,” adds Spezio.

Tova Levine ’21 doesn’t know exactly what her career plans are, but she does know that data science will complement her ability to conduct research in her major field of psychology. “A lot of psychology is centered around the analysis of data and using programs like R and SPSS, but I wanted to know more ways of analyzing my findings using coding and other forms of analysis,” she says. To gain this skillset, Levine is deferring what would have been an early graduation for one semester to pursue the DS minor.

In addition to a focus on domain expertise and a strong mathematical grounding (students must take mathematics through calculus II and linear algebra), Scripps’ DS minor will also focus strongly on the ethics of data science. “The focus on ethics and justice is just as necessary [as the other courses],” says Spezio. “No DS program should be allowed or funded without such a focus, but it’s still quite rare.” Scripps’ DS minor requires a specialized course, “Data Science Ethics & Justice (DSEJ)”—one of the few such courses currently taught in the United States.

Consider the 2017 Stanford paper that used tools from data science that claimed the ability to discern a person’s sexual orientation based purely on their face. As a Forbes article notes, “While on the surface the study was simply yet another technical paper detailing a convolutional neural network application, it generated an immediate ethical outcry over the dystopian future it previewed in which repressive governments could scan their national identity card databases to identify all potential LGBT individuals and target them for arrest or even execution.”

“Scripps students want to use DS to change the world, so they need to know how DS actually works and especially when DS will likely fail or misfire when misused,” says Spezio. “People can get hurt when DS misfires, and misfire it does, often, as we have seen for some time now.” The minor is designed to give students practical tools to use in DS contexts they may encounter in their work outside of Scripps, including teaching concepts from corporate and social responsibility and crafting policy recommendations.

“If the understanding and control of data, algorithms, and visualizations/interpretations are not democratic and are not as free from bias as possible and are not done with an intentional inclusion of the interests and voices of the most historically disadvantaged, then nothing will be democratic and free of bias—no court, no hospital, no election, no school, no government,” says Spezio. “That is why DS is so critically important in the twenty-first century and why Scripps College needs to be a leader in the field.”