New Data Science degree examines the ethics of data analysis along with the mechanics

September 16, 2020

Data Science image - computer screen with graphs. Photo by Chris Liverani for
A new Data Science degree at Bellarmine University will open doors to well-paying jobs across all facets of the economy for graduates—and prepare them to navigate the ethical issues of data analysis.

The Data Science program is an interdisciplinary collaboration among Bellarmine’s departments of Computer Science and Mathematics and its W. Fielding Rubel School of Business. Unlike many programs in the region, its initial degree—offered for the first time this fall—is a Bachelor of Science in Data Science, rather than a graduate degree.

“We would like to get students interested in these kinds of disciplines in high school so they can pursue them in college and don’t have to wait until they are 25 years old with an undergraduate degree in another major,” said Dr. Robert Kelley, assistant professor of Computer Science and director of the Data Science program. “If you can major in math or computer science, you can do data science.”

The program grew out of talks with Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development agency, which aims to add 6,000 local technology jobs by 2023 through an initiative called LouTechWorks. Bellarmine pledged to create computer- and mathematics-related degrees and certifications and increase enrollment in technology programs. The Data Science degree also aligns with the university's strategic plan, which calls for academic innovation and mutually beneficial partnerships in Louisville and the region. 

The demand for data scientists—who may also be called systems analysts, data analysts, machine-learning engineers or statisticians, depending on the industry—is growing. Nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 16 percent increase in employment for computer and information research work by 2028, which it characterizes as significant.

“Just last week, I saw that Glassdoor [a job-search website] had 18,000 open data-science positions listed nationally,” Kelley said. “Every company will have to have data scientists, just like they have to have accountants. It will be part and parcel of doing business.”

The median annual salary for data scientists nationally is $94,000; in Louisville, $74,000. “These are good-paying jobs, and they are challenging jobs—jobs where you will continually learn,” Kelley said. “Things are constantly changing.”

Students in Bellarmine’s program will progress from learning to use data sets to answer other people’s questions to formulating their own questions and finding the data sets to answer them.

“We are going for a good mix of theory and practice,” Kelley said. “We want people to be able to understand the theoretical background and also to have skills so they can be immediately productive.”

Bellarmine is the ideal setting for such a program, he said, “because with the university’s liberal-arts approach, you have that foundation for working in a lot of different areas.” The degree was designed so that students can easily incorporate minors or a second major.

To support Bellarmine’s missionof educating students for ethical leadership and service to improve the human condition, the Data Science program also focuses on data science’s implications for social justice and the public good, not just on its advantages and utility for business and industry.

Just because an industry can do something, that doesn’t mean it should, Kelley said.

As an example, he points to machine learning, an application in which data scientists, rather than programming a computer with the steps to solve a problem, teach it to look for patterns in data and improve its own decision-making. Computers used in banking can be taught, for instance, how to decide whether an applicant is a good loan risk based on data from thousands of previous loans.

But machine learning can have inherent biases. “Take facial-recognition software. We know that it is terrible at recognizing non-white faces,” Kelley said. “If you come up through engineering, you talk about the technology and how to do it. You don’t talk about bias and whether you should do it.

“We are going to be asking those questions.”


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