Faculty propose data science program


To keep up with a world that is increasingly full of data, the college’s Faculty Strategy Committee (FSC) has proposed the addition of a Middlebury data science program. While the particulars of the program are still in the works, professors involved in the process say the program will likely start with a minor in data science. 

Data science is often characterized by its ambiguity, according to Assistant Professor of Mathematics Alexander Lyford, who said that “there is no consensus about what constitutes ‘data science.’” There is substantial overlap in the field with computer science, already a fast-growing department at the college, but data science also has the potential to expand beyond existing computer science course offerings, he said.

The push for a data science program emerged out of the Envisioning Middlebury process. During an Envisioning Middlebury meeting, FSC members found a noticeable commonality between an otherwise diverse array of faculty visions for the college: data. When imagining Middlebury five, 10, 20 years from now, faculty members collectively envisioned more resources for data management and data literacy, and opportunities to engage students interested in data. 

“A solid data science foundation can teach citizens how to make informed decisions based on the data they consume around them in their daily lives,” Lyford said. 

According to Lyford, data science has become increasingly relevant over the last 30 years as people interact with data, graphs and polls in their daily lives and, increasingly, make decisions based on that data. Within the last decade, a staggering number of jobs have emerged calling for the production of data. 

The FSC, in response to the Envisioning Middlebury process, put together an ad-hoc committee called MiddData. The committee will look at ways to make data science opportunities more accessible to students and the future plans for data science at Middlebury. While there is hope to expand the program beyond a minor in data science, Lyford said a minor would be the first step in establishing the discipline on campus. 

“Although the specifics of this minor are still in flux, the minor would almost certainly be interdisciplinary in nature and would include introductory statistics, computer science and data science courses,” Lyford said. “There are definitely discussions about a major in data science, but it’s not immediately clear where it would be housed and we would almost certainly require more faculty to staff the courses required for this major.”

Students said they are excited about the potential for new opportunities related to data science in the curriculum. 

“I think it’s a very relevant topic of study in today’s political climate, economy and culture,” Iris Ethier ’23 said. Ethier is undeclared, but is considering a major in computer science or mathematics. 

Will Kelley ’21, a computer science major, believes studying data science can help students in other disciplines interrogate their own areas of study. 

“A lot of times, I feel we are asked to accept that anything written in numbers is indisputably correct, or that we must accept someone else’s statistical analysis without really knowing its origins or implications,” Kelley said. “Data science alone is a deep field, but I think its greatest benefit is how empowering it can be in our approach to other areas of study.”

According to Lyford, courses like Introduction to Data Science, Statistical Learning, Introduction to Statistical Science, and Social Life in an Age of Big Data are great jumping-off points into data science for students interested in the topic.