On May 1, 2017, the Data Science for the 21st Century (DS421) NRT training program hosted a symposium to celebrate the graduation of the first cohort of trainees. The day’s agenda included discussions of the changing environment on the UC Berkeley campus for data science and interdisciplinary research education and what we have learned from the implementation of the DS421 program. Five themes framed the program evaluation results as “what is valuable in graduate education”: heterogeneity, opportunity, practice, question, and people. Each theme was supported by multiple sources of evaluation data. The themes help to ground the training outcomes and guide the discussion of ways to improve the next iteration of the program elements.
The DS421 program was founded on building students’ 1) knowledge of concepts, empirical methods, and analytic tools from environmental science, social science, and statistics, 2) ability to conduct interdisciplinary research, and 3) development of skills to effectively communicate results to diverse audiences. The program evaluation activities target the assessment of the student outcomes, providing feedback and support for the development and improvement of the program elements. The driving questions of the evaluation activities were:
–How do the DS421 training elements contribute to student and faculty attainment of training outcomes?
–How can we scaffold students’ development of interdisciplinary research skills?
Evaluation data was collected from multiple sources through self-report surveys, observations, interviews, and focus groups. In the review of the evaluation data five themes emerged across sources and methods.
The graduate students admitted into the DS421 program come from 8 departments across 5 schools. Students’ vary in their prior knowledge and experiences, as well as, their ongoing experience. When the students are in the program their experiences continue to be different; navigating varying departmental requirements, courses to take, papers to complete, teaching assistantships to fulfill, and qualification exam timelines. Some students are admitted to graduate school with an advisor and others do not select an advisor until their second year. There is also varying membership to departmental cohorts, laboratory groups, and research seminars that are dependent upon school, advisor, and research the student is interested in. Needless to say, the students are heterogeneous when they enter the program and continue divergent paths during the program.
Yet, students apply to the DS421 program to acquire a foundation of data science skills and to engage in interdisciplinary dialogue regarding their research. These common goals tie the DS421 community together. Each individual brings a perspective and experience that is unique and welcome. A student described his/her biggest take away in the colloquium as, “The opinions of my classmates are pretty diverse!” Highlighting the exposure to new perspectives and approaches to inquiry. The program provides a rich environment for learning that extends students’ knowledge across discipline.
The graduate students admitted into the DS421 program are provided the opportunity to discuss their ideas and to present their research to people outside their discipline. One student said the program allowed him/her to “[get] outside the box” of departmental course requirements. The program provided alternative courses and a new set of peers from different disciplines. Another student wrote, “It has been helpful to see what problems other people in different disciplines are grappling with and what tools they are using.” Each element of the program was designed to give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in research outside their discipline. For the first cohort of the DS421 program, the final project of the Reproducible Data Science course involved working in mixed discipline groups, bringing students together with different expertise and interests to address one question. Within these opportunities students are learning about and building networks to areas of research that are not traditionally discussed in their departmental programs.
Graduate students don’t explicitly say they are practicing research but they actually are; practicing to think and present research questions, talk with an audience, collaborate with others, and apply tools. The elements of the DS421 program have practice built-in. The colloquium brought students in a cohort together to practice “how to communicate across disciplines.” The communication workshop provided the space for students to try, fail, and succeed at communicating to an audience outside their discipline. From practicing the delivery of a jargon free message to “practicing answering tough questions before an audience,” students were asked to apply the skills and techniques they learned again and again. In the Impacts, Methods and Solutions course students practiced proposal writing. Students posed and wrote about different ideas throughout the semester. A student wrote, “It’s been useful to write frequent proposals, and to workshop them in class.” The Reproducible Data Science course was designed as a series of modules to practice “the collaborative workflow process using Github”, each module adding new tools and different content. Opportunities to practice skills in a supportive environment allows students to try new skills and test out new ideas.
The DS421 program faculty press students to “expose [them]selves to the types of questions in other disciplines.” The program elements push students beyond exposure into engagement and integration of the way other people think about problems. As one student in the program wrote that he/she was able “to think about a statistical methods question …in a new and interesting way by talking with students who do not go to the same usual methods as economists usually go to.” Another student wrote that the colloquium “… has been a great introduction into the way people from other disciplines think about the same questions I do.” Understanding the nuances of research questions across disciplines reveals to students new ways of framing and new methods to addressing their own research questions.
At the symposium, a faculty member stated that the program supported the “…building [of] trust, [by] talking across boundaries.” In order for students to cross disciplinary boundaries the people from both sides need to be brought together for a common purpose and to be in a supportive environment. The DS421 program does this through striving to balance the participants interests, experiences, and goals. One of the primary activities students report they are participating in are discussions of topics with peers and mentors. If their peers and mentors cross disciplinary boundaries the discussions are fundamentally different than if they did not. Building these relationships increases students access to interdisciplinary discussions and ultimately opportunities. The summer research program requires students to work with graduate students and faculty from different disciplines, further extending the boundaries of single disciplines.
Next: How can we use these themes to inform and increase the success of the DS421 program?