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Digital Hamilton: Learning Data Science Across Disciplines


A math major with an environmental studies minor, Rachel Pike ’21 saw data science as a natural combination of her interests, and a new course gave her a chance to confirm that. She enrolled in ENVST 206 Environmental Data Science.

“It was just my luck that Professor Kropp was hired my senior year, giving me two semesters to take her classes,” Pike said. “I was really excited for this class, specifically because it is a great introduction to data science, its driving principles, and best practices in the field — while also maintaining a focus on environmental issues.”

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Heather Kropp, who is in her first academic year at Hamilton, is an environmental data scientist who created the new course and taught it fall semester.

Kropp’s position reflects one facet of Digital Hamilton, an initiative to transform teaching, learning, and operations at the College through digitally intensive courses and emerging digital technologies. The academic goal is to enable all students to understand and acquire the modes of thinking and skills they need to communicate and work effectively in an increasingly digital world.

To support Digital Hamilton, the College committed to hiring four faculty members across disciplines, and Kropp is one of them. “Her classes on data science are expected to serve not just environmental studies, but all the sciences, and they instantly filled as soon as they were listed,” Dean of Faculty Suzanne Keen said.

Data science combines statistics and computing with the academic expertise needed to understand and interpret the data, Kropp explained. She was drawn into the field because her research involved massive amounts of data, and she needed to learn the computer coding and sophisticated statistical techniques to work with all that information.

“Whatever field you're in, we're just seeing data transforming fields, and the improvements in technology are just really increasing the volume of data that's collected, which is really great. But also, it's becoming a fundamental skill to know how to kind of handle that type of data, and work with larger data sets,” Kropp said.

DIGITAL LEADERSHIP AT HAMILTON

Digital technologies and modes of thinking continue to change the world. Hamilton is responding by instilling among its students the skills to communicate and work effectively in this environment.

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Environmental science major Abigail Roller ’21 took the new course because she considers data analysis to be a critical component of good climate change policy. “Analyzing past climate trends and future climate scenarios allows us to predict the impacts of climate change on different sectors — agriculture, economy, etc., — will help us know what kind of climate futures we need to prepare for,” Roller said.

For Pike, ENVST 206 was invaluable.

“What made this class different from a computer science or statistics class that just focuses on the coding or the math behind the problems was that we applied what we were learning to environmental issues like rising global temperatures, habitat distributions, pollution, or other similar topics,” she said. “This course also touched on the ethical and justice components of environmental data science.”

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