Illustration by Emma Wilson and Griffin Mancuso.

Data science makes its debut as one of Cal Poly Humboldt’s new science majors


by Emma Wilson and Griffin Mancuso

Data science debuted as one of the eight new science majors that Cal Poly Humboldt is offering this semester.

Data science is the blend of math, statistics and coding where data scientists examine which questions need to be answered and where to find the related data. Data science is a major with many career opportunities in a variety of fields including mathematics, computer science, coding and research. This major is ideal for students who want to apply their talents in different areas and want to have a practical use for their math skills.

Currently, one data science class is being offered this semester: Data 111, Intro to Programming and Computational Thinking for DS. In the spring, Data 271, Data Wrangling and Visualization, will be available.

Kamila Larripa is an associate professor and is currently leading the new data science major. Larripa has been working at Cal Poly Humboldt since 2008 and is currently doing a research project with her students on a type of immune cell in the brain called microglia. She is interested in looking at cells; how they integrate and make decisions in the human body. 

Larripa previously did some training and started offering her students workshops in data science in 2017, like machine learning and methods or how to clean a data set. 

“People were really interested, and I just feel like there was kind of this need that students were wanting this,” Larripa said. “And then over time, with a bunch of other people on campus and then the transition to polytech, now we have this new major in the math department.”

Photo by Griffin Mancuso. Bethany Johnson, an associate professor, describes the first project students are working on in Data 111.

Bethany Johnson, an associate professor, is teaching the first available data science class this semester. Students taking her class learn the definition of data science, its fundamentals and the skills needed to succeed in their industry of choice.

“We spent the first part of the class basically learning how to program in Python, so this is kind of like basic programming stuff including how to write a for loop, how to do conditional statements, if-else statements and how to simulate some things,” Johnson said. “And then we start moving into statistics, where we’re trying to figure out, like, how can we use data to make a conclusion about the population. And then toward the end of the class, we’re going to get into a little bit of prediction.”

Johnson also emphasized data science as a broad spectrum of skills that anyone can benefit from.

“I think that it’s important for people to view data science as, as not like a strict scientific discipline. You don’t have to be a computer whiz or something like that,” Johnson said. “I think that sometimes when people hear data science, they maybe don’t even know exactly what it entails… I would think about it as just like, sort of a discipline to help you solve problems and make decisions, work with the data and the information that’s out there.”

Elio Piccagli is pursuing a major in computer science and data science along with two minors in biology and art. Currently, Piccagli is in the Data 111 class doing a project on the world population’s relationship to poverty levels. He explained the commonalities and differences between computer science and data science. 

“Computer science deals with like a lot of, ‘how do we code this,’” Piccagli said. “And data science is like, ‘we have this data, how do we make a table visualizing that data?’ So it’s just like the application of computer science.”

Emad Syed is a junior majoring in data science who pursued the major out of an interest in manipulating data rather than creating it. He also emphasized the flexibility of possible career paths students can pursue with a data science major.

“I’m looking for something that can be applied in all, in all parts of life,” Syed said, “Be it forestry, economics, statistics, computers, anywhere where the skill set can be used. I don’t want to necessarily choose a specialized field.”

Larripa has hope for the future of the data science program at Cal Poly Humboldt

“So the overall theme of our program is really data for good. Like how can we, you know, capture, analyze data and make decisions so that we’re making the world a better place?” Larripa said. “And I mean, I think that really is in line with the Cal Poly vision. And we’re really excited about that.”

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