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SASN's Data Science Minor Takes Flight in Its Second Full Year

As we go about our daily business, data is routinely touching our lives.

Search for a mortgage these days, and undoubtedly, data and algorithms will play an integral role in steering you toward a purchasing decision. Buy a life insurance policy, either from a licensed agent or on the Web, and you can expect the same. That HR person who’s fielding candidates for a job? She’s increasingly depending on algorithms to wade through resumés and shortlist applicants. If you’ve ever tried online dating, shopped at Amazon or watched movies on Netflix, you’ve undoubtedly interacted with algorithms. U.S. courtrooms even use them to compute risk scores such as a defendant’s chances of re-offending.

Rutgers University–Newark has responded to this technological sea change by creating a Data Science minor, an ever-evolving program of study serving undergraduates across the campus that integrates coursework, community and corporate readiness. The minor, which began formally in 2020, has picked up steam over the past year and is hitting its stride.

“I am incredibly excited about the growth in DS course enrollment and interest in the minor,” said Nicole Richardson, Distinguished Professor of Professional Practice in Economics and Data Science, who is leading the DS minor program.

There are currently 45 declared DS-minor students, up from 34 last year, and more than 600 students from across campus have enrolled in data science courses since fall 2019, when they first began to be offered to undergraduates.

That was the year that the School of Arts & Sciences–Newark (SASN) created the core course of what became the DS minor, called Everyday Data, to expose undergraduates from all disciplines to the ubiquity of big data and algorithms, teach them basic data literacy and coding skills, and help them use data-visualization techniques to develop compelling narratives.

The following year, a DS minor began to take shape under the direction of Professor Patrick Shafto, the Henry Rutgers Term Chair in Data Science, and Dr. Lucille Booker, a computational linguist who led strategic initiatives for the Chancellor's Office and taught in the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science.

In September 2020 SASN hired Richardson, who had been working as Senior Director of Data Science for Audible.com, to lead and expand the program. While at Audible Richardson had started a data-science internship program for RU-N students of color to increase diversity in the field, and had consulted on the Everyday Data course. She was therefore a natural fit to take the DS minor to new heights, and she’s been doing just that.

There are many avenues for our students to take in this increasingly important field.

Today, the 18-credit DS minor includes nine courses taught by faculty from several departments, with more on the way, and features guest lecturers from major companies, along with internship opportunities for students via an in-house Data Science Consultancy arm that enables undergraduates to work on contracted projects with area businesses.

In addition to Everyday Data, the DS minor offers Fundamentals of Data Visualization, Ethical Issues in Data Science, Database System Design and Management, Statistics and Machine Learning, Intro to Swift iOS Application Development, Deconstructing Machine Learning Bias, Computing for Economics, and Agile iOS Design and Development.

This curriculum is designed to provide students with the tools to weave data into actionable insights, algorithms and business strategies—whether it be as data analysts and data-science modelers, machine-learning engineers, or artificial-intelligence specialists—to fuel the digital economy we’ve come to increasingly depend on in our daily lives.

And this, Richardson stresses, cuts across many disciplines.

“Our students, once out in the field, may use the data-science workflow to deliver data models and analyze data to answer business or research questions, or they might work for a start-up and design apps residing in different web stores,” said Richardson. “Or they may be data-savvy business or marketing majors working alongside data scientists to drive strategic decisions. There are many avenues for our students to take in this increasingly important field.”

To prepare students for professional careers, Richardson created the Rutgers-Newark Data Science Consultancy (RNDSC), a grant-funded entity that takes on projects for corporate clients. In 2020–2021 a RNDC student-intern team worked with secured-finance company MoCaFi, which is based in New York and Newark, to redesign their data model and conduct data analytics, a project that was funded by a grant from Apple Computer. In 2021–2022 RNDC student interns are working with Johnson & Johnson and SF NET (Secured Finance Network), using their data-science Python, R and JavaScript coding and analytic skills to produce data-driven solutions to measure, analyze and present findings on diversity, equity and inclusion in the Secured Finance industry.

“The J&J project, specifically, is an opportunity for students to delve into the data-science and machine-learning field of natural-language processing,” said Richardson.

In addition to funding the new venture, the two companies have made a charitable gift to fund research- and teaching-assistants in the DS minor—undergraduates and graduate students will help with lab sections of Everday Data lab and other courses as part of the gift.

With the help of SASN Dean Jacqueline Mattis, Richardson also secured a room in Bradley Hall and is turning it into a technologically equipped conference room for RNDSC interns and DS minor students, where they can collaborate on projects, host meetings with clients, and work with like-minded students and faculty.

Richardson has also been building community within the DS minor by running a Slack discussion board for students, where they can discuss coursework and career issues and opportunities, as well as an alumni channel within the Slack group.

“This enables me to answer career questions in real time, because I’m always on some type of device til 11pm anyway, though earlier on weekends,” said Richardson. “The idea is to meet students where they’re at.”

Together with the Office of Academic Services, the DS minor is also participating in a high-school dual-enrollment program, enabling Newark high school students to to take data-science courses at RU-N. Currently, four students from Marion P Thomas Charter School and Great Oaks Legacy Charter School are enrolled in Everyday Data.

Richardson is pleased with the DS minor’s progress and is excited to see her students move beyond the confines of RU-N and into the workforce.

“Our first cohort of DS minor students are set to graduate this spring, and we're helping them secure positions at Fortune 100 and 500 companies, landing roles at leading and cutting-edge investment houses and consulting firms,” said Richardson. "Graduating seniors cite our courses and internships as the main reason they applied for and landed roles at their post-graduate employers, which tells me we are effectively designing and delivering courses that prepare our students for in-demand jobs with above-average salaries, as well as graduate programs in math and statistics. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished with the help of so many people, and this is only the beginning.”