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Data Mine community brings together liberal arts and STEM


Fall 2019 | By Eric Butterman. Photo by Contributed.


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Data is often called a language – one that few people speak well.

On the other hand, those who are proficient with data and technology might not be as effective when it comes to writing a report, giving an oral presentation, or speaking a foreign language.

What if we could change that? The Data Mine project envisions creating a living change – literally.

Part of Purdue’s Integrative Data Science Initiative, the learning community will pair STEM and liberal arts students to live together. They will attend many of the same classes to see what happens when students from differing disciplines intermingle.

How connected will the living space be? Down to the office hours in the residence hall, with community members eating dinners, attending seminars, and participating in social activities together.

“So often people in similar majors just stick with each other when it comes to sharing ideas and influencing each other for their future work,” said professor and head of philosophy Christopher Yeomans, a Data Mine team member since its first funding proposal. “But you don’t always grow as much as possible that way. Here, these students could be a support for each other academically, creatively, and even share their problems.”

The Data Mine is an expansion of the college-within-a-college, living community concept utilized by thousands of Purdue students. The University cites several benefits of residential learning community participation, including stronger connections with professors and classmates, a broader learning experience, and improved chances of academic success.

More than 20 learning communities, with a total population of approximately 700 students, will live in Hillenbrand Hall this fall as part of the Data Mine project. The learning community participants will come from academic units across campus – all with the goal of training students in data science and equipping them to find solutions to real-world problems.

Liberal Arts Connection

Although the learning communities are open to students from any discipline, four have direct liberal arts ties.

The Liberal Arts learning community will feature significant influence from the philosophy department. Philosophy instructors will teach a course that covers critical thinking concepts on the limits of big data, as well as a data visualization course that incorporates geographic information system (GIS) data to track travel routes in the Aeneid and the Odyssey.

In the Political Science community, professors Jay McCann and Eric Waltenburg will teach introductory U.S. politics and political analysis classes that will also collaborate on a data project.

The Department of English is connected to the Analyzing Digital Gaming and Culture community, with residents taking the English 280 course, Games, Narrative, Culture.

Finally, the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Anthropology and African American Studies program collaborated with the Honors College and Purdue Libraries on the Critical Data Studies community. With direction from Kendall Roark, assistant professor of library and information science and a courtesy faculty member in anthropology, the Critical Data Studies community will work to create tools and methods that help scholars engage with the public about data science’s societal role.

Finding between 23 and 27 students to participate in each of the communities was, relatively speaking, the easy part. The tougher issue was assembling a curriculum, said Data Mine director Mark Daniel Ward, a professor of statistics.

The challenge was to select subjects that would pull everyone together for discussion and exploration.

For example, organizers of the Liberal Arts learning community participated in a healthy debate before ultimately selecting courses such as Critical Thinking: Philosophy of Data; Statistics and Society; and SCLA 101: Transformative Texts I, the first course in the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program certificate.

In the spring, students will take Ethics in Data Science in the first eight weeks, along with the second level of Transformative Texts, SCLA 102. Students will also have the option of taking Ethics for Technology, Engineering, and Design.

“We don’t see any optional courses as likely being a problem,” Yeomans said. “Remember, this whole project was optional. The idea is to have all of these students working together so they could understand different modes of thinking and see how they extend in data concepts, learning statistical techniques, and bring them into liberal arts. The question: Over the course of the year, can we build that bridge between all these students?”

Something to Talk About

Ward is excited for the opportunity to teach this mix of learners, with about half of the Data Mine participants coming from the freshman class.

“I can’t wait to hear the kind of debates that come up,” he said. “We may hear the kind of back-and-forth which has been so rare for corporations and universities across the world.”

However, the Data Mine doesn’t exist simply to open minds. Its purpose is also to open career opportunities.

“I think we’re all guilty of having a narrow view of what to teach – it’s just as true of liberal arts and the STEM fields,” Yeomans said. “A lot of data and tech is about the startup culture, where the point is to disrupt and produce something dramatically new. Whenever you do that, you can be looking at areas you may not fully understand, particularly the consequences to society.

“There are institutional factors, and there’s a real awareness both in liberal arts and in STEM that issues need to be explored for change. This is a service, but it also means jobs. We already see technology surrounding itself in these questions more. Those who can understand technology and the concerns that go with it have a chance to be extremely valuable.”

Right now, there is only a one-year commitment to the program, but the leaders are optimistic about its future.

“We don’t expect, say, every liberal arts student now will necessarily go on to become a data scientist,” Yeomans said. “What we hope is that whether a student goes out into agriculture, nursing, or something else, they can now be a helpful leader in terms of understanding application and implications of data.

“You could have been a philosophy major and may be more likely to say, ‘OK, this may be popular, but what will this technology do to children? To everyone?’ Many times we don’t know the answers. But, then again, not enough people have been asking the questions.”