Data Analytics at Westmont College – A Unique Liberal Arts Perspective
The QuantCrunch – Higher Education’s Response
In 2017 IBM, in collaboration with Glassdoor and the Business Higher Education Forum, published “The Quant Crunch: How the Demand for Data Science Skills is Disrupting the Job Market”. The authors of the report suggested that:
“Data democratization impacts every career path, so academia must strive to make data literacy an option, if not a requirement, for every student in any field of study… Higher education needs to be nimble and responsive, and its bachelor’s, graduate, certificate, and executive level programs have to be responsive to workforce needs.”
In our series “The QuantCrunch - Higher Education’s Response” we’re exploring the diverse and often, newly minted, higher education programs to find out just how universities are preparing the next generation of advanced analytics professionals.
Westmont College – a Unique Place for a Data Analytics Degree Program
In this article, we’re presenting what may be a one of a kind analytics degree program from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. It’s a great example of just how much the perceived need for data and analytics skills in higher education has grown. For starters, Westmont’s new Bachelor of Science in Data Analytics is one of the fairly rare undergraduate programs in advanced analytics.
Westmont is a small but distinctive educational institution with just over 1,300 students, all living on campus and following a faith based path. Although faculty are top notch, it’s not your typical large university with access to a dozens of computer science, physics, math and engineering PhD’s. It’s not a technical college at all, but rather it has a long history steeped in a classic liberal arts curriculum and educational philosophy backed by strong Christian values. Not exactly where you’d think to look for a junior level data scientist, right?
Ranked #23 by Forbes among “national liberal arts colleges whose graduates earn the highest salaries” it seems that with its newly launched Data Analytics major, future Westmont graduates are set to continue that trend. The college’s Bachelor of Science in Data Analytics degree program saw its first two graduates, transfers from previously existing degree programs, last spring. This year, however, the college will graduate its first class of Data Analytics majors who experienced the full program from first-years to seniors.
What lies in wait for these data analytics students, who are presumably eager to join the ranks of one of the hottest job markets of this century? How will Westmont’s faith and liberal arts-based philosophy and curriculum influence its approach to teaching the field of data analytics? It turns out there’s some pretty exciting and differentiated things going on at Westmont in their data analytics program.
Interview with Dr. Donald J. Patterson, PhD, Professor of Computer Science and Data Analytics
We chatted with Dr. Donald Patterson, Professor of Computer Science and Data Analytics at Westmont. Dr. Patterson has been instrumental in developing the Data Analytics degree program. A graduate of Cornell, with a PhD from University of Washington, Dr. Patterson came to Westmont in 2015 after a 10 year stint at UC Irvine where he received tenure and served as director of the Laboratory for Ubiquitous Computing and Interaction. He also spent a few years launching several machine learning startups of his own.
Dr. Patterson explained to us how Westmont concluded that it should create an interdisciplinary Data Analytics program, what the degree aims to instill in students, how he sees their role in society and more. Following is a recap of our conversation.
What does the applicant pool look like for the first year of the data analytics degree program?
According to Dr. Patterson, Westmont experienced a lot of interest in the data analytics program considering it’s the first year the major has been available to an entering freshman class. Surprisingly the new major only cannibalized about 15% of what would typically have been computer science majors. The program received almost 200% more applications than is typical for the computer science major, drawing from a different pool of students.
Dr. Patterson has observed that applicants are “not the stereotypical Mountain Dew drinking programmers in the basement” crowd. He explained that these are students who like programming, but don’t see themselves becoming full-time software engineers. Rather they see programming as a tool to be used for other objectives. That’s not to say it’s not a very technical course load, he explains,
“It’s a pretty tough curriculum, very technical. It covers computer science, math and business skills, which are all data heavy courses”
The applicant pool was about 50/50 men and women. This first crop of freshman will see women making up about 40% of the class, which is in line with most statistics for this experience range. Dr. Patterson explained that it’s quite challenging to attract women into technical degree programs, but it’s a priority for Westmont. Westmont, he explains, works hard to recruit women “thought leaders” to its computer science degree programs.
“We spend a lot of time listening to how existing practices are perceived by women and proactively change when we see that they are a barrier for otherwise highly talented women to succeeding.”
How did Westmont decide to create a Bachelor of Science degree in Data Analytics?
“It arose organically through the relationships of the faculty”, Dr. Patterson described. Together faculty in economics, math, business and computer science started talking, networking and thinking,
“We have all these courses, why don’t we put these existing courses together in an interdisciplinary way?”
Dr. Patterson explained that this was a natural way for a new idea to develop at Westmont adding, “We’re a small school so innovating with our educational programs is relatively low-risk and high-reward”
What are the educational objectives of the data analytics degree program and how is it different than computer science?
The data analytics major integrates learning across several disciplines that incorporate technical and math skills as well as business management and economics skills. The course load is very deliberately crafted to generate broad thinking and analysis, rather than focusing on number crunching. In this sense, Westmont has made a concerted effort to infuse it’s strong liberal arts philosophy into the analytics degree program, as Dr. Patterson explained,
“We want students to learn not only how to crunch numbers, but to be sure they are crunching the right numbers and using the right data. We push students to transcend the focus on data and to think critically about what the data is telling you.”
How does Westmont’s deeply embedded classic liberal arts curriculum and Christian values impact the data analytics degree program?
A rather unique aspect of Westmont’s data analytics program (and computer science) is the senior seminar class. Its focus is to spark critical thinking about how to approach analytics and use technology from a humanistic perspective. The course emphasizes the discussion of ethics and morality in the context of applying computer science and data analytics. Several topics are covered, Dr. Patterson explained:
- Sustainability - With respect to sustainability issues, students think through how working in the field of data analytics can both contribute to sustainability and mitigate associated risks.
- Social justice - Students might go through an exercise thinking about how an algorithm designed to approve mortgage applications might become biased. They will discuss and debate what the social and moral consequences of that might be.
- The developing world – Dr. Patterson explained that young people tend to see technology as a savior and solution to the world’s problems. The course tries to get students to see that the solution to a social structure problem such as poverty in Haiti is not more technology. They are encouraged to think more broadly and deeply about the root cause of 3rd world problems.
- Surveillance and identity – Students discuss at what point they think technologies like facial recognition or the use of personal purchasing data is invasive or unethical.
Dr. Patterson explained the senior seminar in data analytics is about ensuring students understand the consequences of their future work and aims to equip them with a “spiritual and character toolbox” that helps them to answer the question, “We care about all people, so what impact is our work making on them?” He emphasized
“We’re really telling our students that they are responsible for these things. We don’t want our graduates to just shrug their shoulders when facing the consequences of their decisions.”
What kind of research projects are the data analytics students working on?
A baby in the NICU is monitored by CPRIS for healthy and unhealthy movement patterns
The students’ current research project is perhaps the best example of the potential culture and perspective coming out of data analytics at Westmont. Students are conducting research on machine learning in conjunction with a study that Dr. Patterson is leading with his colleagues at UC Irvine, and which is funded with an NIH grant. The team is working to develop a computerized hardware-software system capable of identifying preterm infants in the NICU who are at high risk of developing cerebral palsy (CP).
The technique called the Cerebral Palsy Risk Identification System (CPRIS) is based on the systematic identification (through machine learning) of specific patterns of movement-derived features. Dr. Patterson holds the patent for this technology which includes sensors that attach to babies’ wrists and ankles and depth-aware cameras that watch them from above.
Currently children are not diagnosed with cerebral palsy until they are around four years old. This delay has huge implications for families, the children and the health system. Yet, as Dr. Patterson explains,
“These NICU nurses through their experience can absolutely tell which infants will develop cerebral palsy. But they are unable to easily explain or transfer this tacit knowledge.”
Dr. Patterson explained that it would simply be too costly for hospitals to hire enough nurses to spot CP at a rate that machines could. So, the research and machine learning techniques being used in the development of the CPRIS is aimed at translating this knowledge into a systematic clinical procedure.
Reflecting on the opportunities for his students to work on this kind of project Dr. Patterson admitted that machine learning technology is advancing so quickly that the student researchers who are participating on this project “are teaching me about machine learning” and are thus going to be ready to hit the ground running after graduation.
What is most telling about this kind of data analytics project is that it speaks to the philosophy of the college and its educational goals which is stated on the college website as:
Graduates should have the skills, knowledge and motivation to be effective participants in the civic, charitable and cultural lives of their communities.
This kind of project “opens the minds” of his students, Dr. Patterson explains, “It’s not like applying analytics to advertisement or predicting the stock market.” He adds of the ultimate goal of the project,
“We could better prepare parents for what to expect and create a new space for testing early interventions in Cerebral-Palsy treatments”
What does the future hold for the data analytics program?
As Dr. Patterson suggested Westmont is always experimenting. Right now, he and his colleagues are exploring how Westmont’s satellite campus in downtown Santa Barbara (where Amazon and several tech companies are located) could provide continuing professional education in Data Science. The program would be very technical in nature, looking at cloud providers and the software engineering end of things. It would be aimed at providing a foundation for a career change or lateral career move for candidates. Dr. Patterson once again emphasized that the program would seek to be attractive to a diverse range of backgrounds, because
“The problems we face are daunting and we need every possible perspective providing ideas on how to solve them.”
Given the access to these kinds of seminars and projects in an undergraduate program, what do you think of all the nanodegree programs in data science? What is their value?
Dr. Patterson agrees that there is a place for nanodegrees in learning. He uses a 5-point framework with respect to thinking about the value of going to college versus other educational opportunities. Dr. Patterson is a father of four, all either in college or high school, so he thinks a lot about the value of education - so much so that he wrote about it in his article, “Breaking Down the College Transaction: 5 Points for Parents”. In this article Dr. Patterson submits that when it comes to thinking about the value of a college degree,
“There are 5 outcomes that we consider: an education, a degree, a social network, identity development, and a job.”
In brief these are explained:
- Education – Education provides the opportunity to exercise the critical thinking tools of multiple academic disciplines and motivates students to participate in the generation of new knowledge.
- Degree – A credential that captures the intangible value that a student receives when they are validated by a particular school for completing a particular major and at a particular level of performance (e.g., “with honors”)
- Social network - Besides classmates and professors, it includes an alumni network. All can be a source of employment, funding for new businesses, a source for housing in a new city, or a resource for starting over if life throws you a curve ball. Not all people need the same kind of social network.
- Identity development – This is character. The college years are a very formative time for young adults. There are the explicit goals e.g., “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity”, to which different institutions aspire. You need to consider in what ways the implicit culture of a place forms students.
- Jobs - All of the previous outcomes, while important, aren’t going to pay back the student loans. Thinking through what opportunities are available for graduates of a particular institution with a particular major is pretty important.
Dr. Patterson went on to explain that he believes that these 5 outcomes are independent of each other, in that you can have an education from a nanodegree program, but you might not gain a social network. You can have an education from a university, but you might not have or need a job. So, students and professionals need to ask themselves when considering nanodegrees or other forms of training and education, “do I need all 5 of these?”
The answer for a lot of people seeking to reskill with a bootcamp or nanodegree program is likely “no”. That said, Dr. Patterson does believe that when it comes to learning and education bootcamps present a glass ceiling.
“You miss out on the process involved in becoming ‘educated’, which is a deep intellectual resource you can draw on whether dealing with people, technology or data.”
Dr. Patterson believes that in a college experience, particularly in a liberal arts college, students are asked to think differently and have many opportunities to be challenged by their peers and professors and to return the favor. He adds that there are programs such as Westmont’s Center for Applied Technology that works with Salesforce.com to provide students with on campus jobs and experiences building applications for the university marketing, admissions and other processes on top of the Salesforce platform. That kind of educational and personal growth opportunity or micro credential experience simply can’t be transmitted in a bootcamp, Dr. Patterson believes. His philosophy is nicely summed up in his article.
“Education is a skill set that helps future graduates find meaning amidst the apparent chaos that surrounds us.”
Where will Westmont data analytics graduates end up professionally after graduating?
Westmont has a career development office that guides graduates in their job search. Since the data analytics program is in its infancy, Dr. Patterson can only speak about computer science graduates. They’re placed all over, he says, but they primarily find employment in the Santa Barbara tech scene with companies such as Appfolio and Logic Monitor, Amazon Alexa (in Santa Barbara), and then more generally on the west coast. Many go up to the Bay area to work in companies in the sustainability field. That said, one of the first two graduates earning a Bachelors in Data Analytics last spring went to Taiwan after graduating to complete a machine learning training program.
As for the kind of data scientist you might see coming out of Westmont, it’s worth noting the differentiation described by the college’s Philosophy of Education:
For just as one must be trained in the skills that enable one to engage in a trade, so one must be trained in those skills that enable one to engage in the distinctively human activities of reasoning, communicating, thoughtfully choosing one’s moral and spiritual ends, building political, economic and spiritual communities, and entering into those "appreciative pleasures" that require knowledge, experience, and trained discrimination.
You can’t get that from a bootcamp.
A warm thank you to Dr. Donald Patterson for taking the time to talk all things data analytics education with us. For more information, check out Westmont’s Data Analytics program.