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Collaboratory@Columbia to Embed Data Literacy Throughout Curriculum

The Record

February 17, 2017
 By Georgette Jasen

The seminar in Fayerweather Hall required a new four-letter code in the directory of classes—HSAM—because it combines disciplines that are rarely taught in tandem, history and applied mathematics. On a recent Tuesday, the discussion was about interpreting and analyzing data in polls, surveys and social media.

“Think about who’s generating the survey, who’s funding it and what they want,” Chris Wiggins, associate professor of applied mathematics in Columbia Engineering School, told the students. “It’s difficult to do statistical analysis that’s not poisoned by one’s own beliefs.” He co-teaches the class, “Data: Past, Present and Future,” with Matthew L. Jones, the James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization in the history department.

The course is among the first from the Collaboratory@Columbia, an initiative jointly founded last year by Columbia’s Data Science Institute and Columbia Entrepreneurship to embed data literacy in Columbia’s curriculum by pairing data scientists with professors in other fields to develop and teach new courses. Wiggins (CC’93), chief data scientist for The New York Times, is affiliated with the Data Science Institute. Jones, whose specialty is the history of science and technology, studied data science, computer law and privacy law with a 2012-2015 fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“Our class aims to combine an introduction to statistical and computational reasoning with reflection on the ethical and political ramifications,” said Jones, who is working on a book about data collection and analysis by government intelligence agencies. “Data is not a natural thing, there are systems that produce it. We have to equip people to be critical about the limitations and possibilities of every data set, wherever it comes from.”

Richard Witten (CC’75), the founder of Columbia Entrepreneurship, said inspiration for the Collaboratory grew from conversations with friends and associates working in law and finance. “I asked them, on a scale of 1 to 10, how important technology is to them, and the answers were all seven, eight or nine,” recalled Witten, who is also a special advisor to University President Lee C. Bollinger and former vice chairman of the board of trustees. “Then, when I asked how proficient they are in technology, the numbers I got were all two, three or four. It is incumbent on us as a university that’s training future leaders to offer courses in technology contextualized so we don’t have this gap going forward. We can be a leader.”  [Rest of Story]

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