Penn State offers 'Big Data' undergraduate major

September 15, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- An innovative, interdisciplinary undergraduate major in social data analytics is now offered through the  Department of Political Science in Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts. Undergraduate majors will work with "big data" in the rapidly growing field of data science. 

The social data analytics major at Penn State is the first undergraduate program to organize the development of data science skills around a social science foundation. Graduates will be adept at handling large, complex stores of information and applying them to pressing social problems.

Big data is the raw information generated through social media, Web browsing and cellphone use, as well as wearable trackers of health information, and electronic sensors that monitor moment-to-moment changes in people and the physical world. It also includes digitized library collections, legislative records, newspapers and case law.

This information offers unprecedented insight into the relationships and processes that constitute social and political life. However, its variety, scale and intensity pose challenges to standard approaches to data analysis employed in government, business, policy organizations, and much academic research. While such data are not new, improved techniques for handling and analyzing them are transforming how they can be used to understand and address social and political problems.

Marie Hojnacki, associate professor of political science, who was part of the team that developed the degree, emphasized the practical and exploratory nature of the curriculum.

''In addition to courses in math, statistics, computer science and data science, students take workshop courses that give them experience applying big data to real world problems,'' she noted. ''They learn to experiment and work through challenges as they arise. They also learn to communicate the results of their analysis effectively. These courses, and the program's culmination in a capstone project, are designed to give students the opportunity to develop a significant portfolio of skills and the ability to work independently and in collaborative teams as they enter the job market.''

Big data is used, for example, to improve government transparency, identify patterns of human rights abuses, track and stop the spread of disease, and understand human migration. The effectiveness of big data in all of its applications – but especially in matters that are consequential to human well-being -- requires more than just mastery of computational and analytic tools. It requires people who can ask good questions, derive strategies to answer them, and understand whether the results are valid. By linking computational and analytic skills to robust training in social science, the social data analytics major develops the cognitive, technical and discipline specific skills necessary to work effectively with big data in a variety of domains.

"The new undergraduate major builds on our college's position as a leader in graduate education in this area," said Lee Ann Banaszak, professor and head, department of political science. "The college's Big Data Social Science Integrative Education and Research Program brought together an interdisciplinary team of researchers in areas ranging from political science and geography to health policy administration and information sciences and technology to establish a new model for graduate education and encourage collaboration across disciplinary boundaries."

The program, which was funded by the National Science Foundation for $3 million over five years, was the first of its kind worldwide.

"In designing the social data analytics major, the college considered how to best prepare students to respond to the larger social changes big data has engendered as well as position them to embrace the economic opportunities it currently represents," said Banaszak. "Students learn to consider the legal and ethical dilemmas surrounding how information is secured and managed.

''Big data literacy not only prepares our students well for the job market of the future but also will be a fundamental skill in our democracy, and thus an essential component of the education of the next generation of leaders."

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Last Updated September 21, 2015