A team from the University of California, Davis, traveled to Silicon Valley and throughout Northern California a few months ago, meeting with managers at more than 20 companies to gauge what they were looking for in employees.
“They would really like to hire graduates of UC Davis who have the critical thinking and the big picture skills of social science and humanities,” said Joe Dumit, director of the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences. “But they also need these graduates to understand their number one problem: data.”
Data includes many kinds of raw materials ranging from demographic facts and figures to information stored on mobile phones, businesses’ customer profiles and even social media postings. The rapidly increasing quantity of this material is commonly dubbed “big data” and can be used for research in many fields.
“The everyday life of companies is really about understanding data,” Dumit said.
The team included Dumit, George R. (Ron) Mangun, dean of the division of social sciences, and Tim McCarthy, a UC Davis graduate and former president of Charles Schwab and Co. and CEO of Nikko Asset Management, and Xan Chacko, a graduate student in cultural studies.
As a result of their study the team helped create a Data Studies Program, which launches this summer. In three courses, students will adapt skills to build a bridge between liberal arts and the business world, learning how to think about and work with data. When the courses were announced the response was immediate, with 100 applicants applying for 40 slots.
The program and classes are aimed at current and potential students in the College of Letters and Science, which encompasses political science, history, sociology, Native American studies, theatre, philosophy, economics, art and dozens of other areas that are the core of a liberal arts education.
“The goal is helping liberal arts majors, but we’ve had interest from across campus,” Dumit said.
Ian Heath, a senior anthropology major who returned to school after 15 years in the workforce, said data studies classes are exactly what he needs to complete his education.
“These will provide the skills I need for working in Internet marketing, which is both data and demographics intensive, and give me an edge in being proficient in both,” Heath said. “Without them I wouldn’t be eligible to get a paid internship, which is the primary entry path into that field. As an anthropology major I am already practiced at understanding people’s language use and culture, but now I will also be able to analyze data trends pertaining to how they search the Internet and their online behavior.”
McCarthy and representatives from companies the team visited will be guests at some of the classes. Duncan Temple Lang, director of the UC Davis Data Sciences Initiative, was also integral in setting up the program and will be one of the teachers for the summer courses.
“Over and over, businesses told us that they need graduates who want to think about customers as people as well as data, who are willing to work with data scientists to identify problems, interpret findings and ask whether a presentation really shows what it promises,” McCarthy said. “This combination of high tech and big think is what companies are looking for.”