Students need more major-specific data science classes

Khadeeja Shah

Editor’s note: This column was written before the closure of the UT campus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Its content may or may not reflect the current reality of student life on campus. We believe it is important to share this column to shed light on issues around campus and to honor the work of its author.

Amid tuition and student loan increases around the country, students are questioning if taking on such huge amounts of debt early on is worth it. According to the U.S. News and World Report, 85% of freshmen enrolled in bachelor programs cited their ability to get a better job as “very important” when determining whether going to college was beneficial.

To provide more return on investment, UT should offer more courses geared towards skills-based learning, such as data science, for all majors rather than simply teaching theory. If students are taught data science in relation to their field of study, they could leverage those skills to become more employable and advocate for a higher salary.

There’s ample evidence to suggest that a myriad of industries, including health care, engineering, social sciences and marketing are dealing with data challenges and are hungry to hire people with data experience. According to an article published on the American Statistical Association’s website, by 2021, a significant majority of business leaders will be looking to hire applicants with data science and data analysis skills.

Jeff Freels, UT director of academic policy and compliance, says that liberal arts students in particular would benefit immeasurably from more training in this area.

“I don’t even think they need to be experts,” Freels said. “They just need to be conversant in the language of data. This will enable them to connect their people-centered work in the humanities and social sciences to the world of data, which is something that traditional data scientists sometimes struggle to do.”

At its core, data science is simply a tool that is growing increasingly beneficial and relevant to the fast-paced, tech-driven world we live in. It can be applied to a variety of careers and areas of study because it allows people to make more informed decisions about their domain and consolidate information that might have been missed before. Learning data science will build problem-solving and critical thinking skills — skills students will use throughout their lives.

UT alumna Tapasvini Paralkar says that she would have benefited greatly from having her statistics classes overlap with some sort of data science class.

“I’m currently in a lab where I’m analyzing data, and I’m learning everything on my own, which is a good exercise, but things would’ve been made so much easier for me had I taken more data science classes,” Paralkar said. “I think it’s where everything is moving, so 100% yes — (data science) would benefit students after they graduate.”

While there is an Elements of Computing certificate program available, the classes are nearly always full, as they are in high demand. Due to this problem, Paralkar advocates for more concentrations in data science to be added within majors. This way, students could learn the relevant applications of data science — a vast field — for their major or area of study. Paralkar isn’t the only one with this opinion.

“There should probably be more courses like the one I teach for the Liberal Arts Honors Program, Data Analytics in Contemporary Society, but I do not think they should be mandatory,” Freels said. “If programs developed them and offered them as an option, I think that would be great.”

A big part of going to college involves self-discovery and growth, but it’s also impossible to ignore the economic realities of why many attend college — to gain a better job that will allow them to provide for their families and pursue their dreams. With more data science courses, why shouldn’t students be able to do both?

Shah is a neuroscience and Plan II freshman from Austin.