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UC Berkeley spreads the gospel of data science with new college, free curriculum

By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
Published: May 22, 2023, 6:00am

They comb through troves of legal records and video evidence to challenge wrongful convictions. They organize medical data to help personalize health treatments for better care. They scrutinize school test scores to investigate inequities. Finding safe drinking water is easier thanks to an analysis tool they created.

UC Berkeley’s faculty and students are marshaling the vast power of data science across myriad fields to address tough problems. And now the university is set to accelerate those efforts with a new college, its first in more than 50 years — and is providing free curriculum to help spread the gospel of data science to California community colleges, California State University and institutions across the nation and world.

As data floods society faster than ever before, demand has surged for specialists who can organize and analyze it with coding skills, computing prowess and creative thinking. To meet the “insatiable demand,” as university officials put it, UC Berkeley will open a College of Computing, Data Science and Society after the University of California Board of Regents approved the plan Thursday.

A new college building is scheduled to open during the 2025-26 academic year and will house the data science major, first offered five years ago, with other degree programs in computer science, statistics, computational biology and computational precision health. Some of the programs will be run jointly with the Berkeley College of Engineering and UC San Francisco. UC Berkeley says no new state funds will be required; the campus has raised private funds for 14 new faculty positions and about $330 million so far in gifts for the new building.

“Infusing the power of data science across multiple disciplines, from basic and applied sciences to the arts and humanities, will help us to fully realize its potential to benefit society, help address our world’s most intractable problems, and achieve our most visionary goals,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ.

Christ told regents Wednesday that huge faculty and student demand — not a top-down decision — led to the data science program. In just five years, data science has become the university’s fourth most popular major among more than 100 offered, with the number of students choosing it nearly doubling to 1,232 in fall 2022 from fall 2019. The number of students who took the introductory data science course was even larger — 4,291 this academic year — and many were majoring in other disciplines, including economics, psychology, sociology, political science and public health.

UC Berkeley’s new college comes as the University of Southern California plans to expand its own footprint in the field with its new School of Advanced Computing. USC aims to bring computing instruction to all students — as well as dramatically expand the number of degrees it confers in technology-related fields. It is part of a $1-billion plan to advance student understanding of the digital world across industries.

At UC Berkeley, the top-ranked public university also plans a broad reach for its mission. The campus is seeding data science into community colleges and other institutions to make the field more accessible to a diversity of students, offering a path to high-paying careers. UC Berkeley students majoring in computer science, for instance, earn an average annual income of $179,000 four years after graduation, according to federal education data. Graduates in data science earn an average annual income of about $130,000, according to Burning Glass, a nonprofit organization that researches employment trends.

The university has posted its curriculum online, complete with assignments, slides and readings, and shared it with more than 89 other campuses. Classes have launched or are set to begin this fall at six California community colleges, four Cal State campuses and other universities including Howard, Tuskegee, Cornell, Barnard and the United States Naval Academy.

“We want to expand access to computing and the possibilities of how people can learn these skills that will get them a better job,” said Eric Van Dusen, a data sciences faculty member who is leading efforts to share Berkeley’s curriculum with community colleges. “The UC is the biggest driver of middle-class advancement we have.”

El Camino College in Torrance began offering a data science class based on Berkeley’s curriculum in 2021. The professor, Solomon Russell, said the inaugural class included a large number of Black students who were drawn to the subject to investigate issues meaningful to them.

The class, for instance, used census files to examine the racial demographics of Alabama and determined that the probability of seating an all-white jury in a 1965 case involving a Black defendant’s rape conviction and death sentence was extremely low — but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the jury selection.

“It enables you to be able to follow your curiosities, answer questions you have and look at the world in a new way,” Russell said.

He invokes Netflix to pitch his class. Data science, he says, is a “cool new field” behind the streaming service’s recommendations on what a subscriber would probably want to watch based on previous viewing habits.

Rebecca Gloyer, a second-year El Camino student, said she shied away from computing due to lack of self-confidence but decided to rid herself of that “toxic energy” to get ahead. She took Russell’s course, learned she could do the work without being a “crazy coder” and found parallels with her love of theater and drama.

“It’s storytelling with numbers,” said Gloyer, who is weighing offers to transfer to data science programs at UC Berkeley and UCLA.

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She said she hopes to use her data science skills to promote environmental sustainability, a passion of hers. One potential project, she said, would use trash collection data to investigate how waste recycling policies are working.

Russell said that El Camino College would not have been able to start the data science class without Berkeley’s curriculum, along with an online course offered by the UC campus that he and two colleagues took.

But finding faculty members willing to train themselves in the new field isn’t always easy, Van Dusen said, and ensuring that students have the required math training is another challenge. So far, six of 116 California community colleges are offering the class to about 500 students at El Camino, Santa Barbara City College, City College of San Francisco, San Jose City College, Skyline College and Laney College. Cal State Fresno is using the curriculum and CSU campuses at Humboldt, Pomona and Channel Islands plan to do so this fall.

“I’m trying to find the people who are going to lean in to teach this new curriculum,” Van Dusen said. “And it’s not everybody who’s ready to take on learning a hard new thing.”

The curriculum includes computing, statistics, ethics and about 25 different areas students can choose, including social justice, biology and environmental sustainability. Ethical questions are front and center.

In one project, students are helping build a public database of California police records that could be used to investigate potential misconduct. But they must also assess the reliability of the information.

Jennifer Chayes, associate provost of the computing and data science division, developed an algorithm that took the bias out of computer screening of resumes after she found that women were less likely to get interviews for tech jobs than men. Students will likewise learn to examine the platforms they build or use to ensure fairness and learn skills to identify and fight misinformation, she said.

In another project, Berkeley’s data scientists are working with public defenders nationally to create platforms that can search through reams of data that could help their clients — an effort to “level the playing field” with better resourced prosecutors, Chayes said.

“We want to advance equity. We want to advance justice,” Chayes said. “We want resources to be allocated equitably across society. These are values that the University of California and Berkeley hold near and dear.”

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