A look into Statistical and Data Sciences- One of Smith’s newest and fastest growing majors

Photo Courtesy Of smith.edu | A team of Smith students in the SDS department won best in show at Five College DataFest.


Cas Sweeney ‘19
Associate Editor

The Statistical and Data Sciences (SDS) department at Smith first created the SDS major in April 2016, making Smith College the first women’s college to have a data science major. Since then, the department has seen massive growth.

Just after the major was created, Yiwen Zhu ’16 became the first graduate to major in SDS. Then this year, two more students graduated in the major, one of whom—Vega Zhang ’17—presented the first thesis in the department. Currently, 21 Smithies have declared majors in SDS.

The department has had to make major changes in order to keep up with added interest in data science. This semester, 90 students enrolled in Introduction to Data Science, which is more than triple the amount of students last year. To accommodate the large amount of  students, the class was co-taught by two professors, Ben Baumer and Jordan Crouser. Next year, the class will be offered both semesters due to  a continued expectation of high enrollment.

Another class that has had continuous high demand is Introduction to Probability and Statistics. Many majors require the class, including the SDS major, and classes fill up quickly every semester. Professor Katherine Halvorsen, one of the professors that teaches the class, said, “Our waiting lists have been long and we have had to ask some students to wait a semester to take the course. That should get easier in the next couple of years as the new people we have hired arrive and start teaching.”

Professor Joseph O’Rourke, the department head, also commented on the new hires, saying, “We have hired one new tenure-track faculty [Miles Ott] starting in the Fall of 2017, and another starting in the Fall of 2018, plus a joint appointment with Computer Science also starting in the Fall of 2018. So the department is growing.” Professor Randi Garcia, an assistant professor of Psychology and Statistical and Data Sciences, also joined the department this year.

Data science is an interdisciplinary field, with a wide range of applications. Professor Amelia McNamara, who also works in the department, said, “I truly believe that data science can be applied to any domain, so it’s a great way to explore your passions.” Therefore, professors who work in multiple different fields are not uncommon in the SDS department.

“I would really like to help students make connections between SDS and the humanities and social sciences,” Garcia said. “Learning how to reason with data is a fundamental critical thinking skill that I believe can translate across disciplines. Likewise, great data analyses are only possible if we know how to ask interesting, important questions.”

Other professors in the department also apply data sciences in a variety of different ways. Before becoming a professor, Baumer worked for the Mets as their statistical analyst. At Smith, he continues to be known for his interest in the relationship between baseball and statistics. Crouser focuses on both computer science and data science, and will be moving to the computer science department next year. Professor Halvorsen is a professor in both the SDS and the Mathematics departments. Halvorsen usually teaches Research Design and Analysis, which focuses on creating studies that are statistically sound.

“I really love teaching Research Design,” Halvorsen said. “It is a topic few people know much about and I feel everyone should know more. The material it teaches can help improve the reproducibility of scientific research.”

The SDS department does a lot to get students involved with the real world applications of their studies. This year Baumer and McNamara organized the fourth annual Five College DataFest, a three-day, data analysis competition. This year Smith students took home three of the six prizes and it was the third time that Smith students won best in show.

Data science is one of the fastest growing fields in the world. CareCast.com declared data scientist to be the fifth best job in its 2017 jobs report. O’Rourke said, “few schools offer a major in SDS, and the job market for our graduates is fantastic.” SDS majors can move on to do many things. Some go to graduate school or join the MassMutual Data Science Development Program. Others get jobs as data engineers, data analysts or statisticians. Others even go on to apply their data skills in jobs from other majors.

For any students potentially interested in taking a class or majoring in SDS, all the professors had the same advice: talk to the faculty. Halvorsen said, “We can give you recommendations for courses based on what you have studied in the past and on what you want to do in the future.” Garcia echoed the statement, saying, “I have talked with many students that were unsure at first, but come to find the challenges and rewards of analyzing data and understanding statistics addicting. We have many classes to choose from—come talk to one of us if you are interested!”

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