Data Science in General Education

Guest post by Dr. Cathie LeBlanc, Plymouth State University

This Success Story is a report on the results of the Northeast Big Data Innovation Hub’s 2020 Seed Fund program.

Plymouth State University has a history of active faculty learning communities focused on various aspects of teaching. Our latest learning community, funded by the Northeast Big Data Innovation Hub’s 2020 Seed Fund Program, is focused on teaching data analytics content, particularly in classes where students are not expecting this content.

The activities of the learning community began in January 2021, when nineteen faculty participated in a week-long workshop related to teaching data analytics. Because many members of the learning community had little experience with data analytics, Daniel Lee, Associate Professor of Economics and resident data analytics expert provided instruction about using R to analyze data. Cathie LeBlanc, Professor of Digital Media and General Education Coordinator, facilitated discussions about the science of learning and its implications for teaching data analytics content. In particular, we discussed the cognitive principles summarized in the 2015 Deans for Impact report called The Science of Learning and the relationship between those cognitive principles and teaching data analytics content. 

Since the goal of our seed grant was to increase the capacity of faculty at Plymouth State to teach data analytics content, we designed a co-teaching experience to learn more about the supports that help faculty to teach this content. Daniel Lee, Associate Professor of Economics, and Jonathan Couser, Teaching Faculty in History, co-taught a General Education interdisciplinary course called “Making Sense of ‘Madness’.” The course merged a humanities-focused examination of our cultural understandings of mental illness with a data analytics approach to gaining insights into those cultural understandings. 

The course was divided into four modules, each focused on a theme related to mental illness: diagnosis, institutions, treatment, and cultural representations. For each module, students completed an assignment in which they analyzed some data and then wrote an essay about the ways in which the data confirmed, contradicted, or further illuminated the readings they had done related to that theme. For example, in the module about institutions, students compared census data from 1940 with census data from 1970 related to the demographics of institutionalized individuals. During this time period, the United States underwent a radical de-institutionalization process so that the overall number of people in mental health institutions declined dramatically. However, analysis of the census data showed that the numbers of people of color in mental health institutions during this time did not decline. The stability of the numbers of institutionalized people of color from 1940 to 1970 was not mentioned in any of the assigned readings. This insight from the data sparked a discussion that would not have happened otherwise and provided students with an understanding of the power of data analytics.

The experience of co-teaching data analytics content with Dr. Lee has given Dr. Couser the confidence that he can teach the class on his own the next time it is offered. He is also helping another faculty member learn data analytics concepts using R so that she can teach the class in the future. Each member of the learning community committed to including at least one module or assignment related to data analytics in one of their classes in either the Spring or Fall 2021 semester. We continued to meet monthly throughout the Spring 2021 semester to discuss the challenges we were facing in incorporating data analytics content and to shape the development of a Data Analytics minor. The minor will be proposed during this academic year and members of the learning community have expressed interest in continuing to meet throughout the Fall 2021 semester.

Lead PI: Cathie LeBlanc

Cathie LeBlanc has been at Plymouth State University since 1998, first in the Computer Science and Technology Department, and since 2006, in the Communication and Media Studies Department, acting as chair of the department from 2011 to 2017. She currently serves as Plymouth State University’s General Education Coordinator. She is the co-author (with Evelyn Stiller) of the textbook Project-Based Software Engineering: An Object-Oriented Approach and has created and/or edited several open educational resources including Creating Games and Tackling Wicked Problems, two texts that are used in classes at Plymouth State University. She writes regularly about her work-in-progress on her blog.