Paula Pineda

As data science gains popularity in higher education, a recent University report recommended that Yale College appoint a committee to rethink the Quantitative Reasoning requirement.

Since the class of 2009, all Yale students must take — and pass — at least two courses that fulfill a quantitative reasoning requirement to graduate. These courses include those offered by the Mathematics Department and can also range from “Introduction to Microeconomics” to “Planets and Stars.” They are designed to give Yale students a conversational, if superficial, grasp on fields like mathematics and statistics. But according to the report released last month, many students end up checking this box without exploring data science at all, though it is a growing field that is crucial to understanding a world of rapid technological advances and debates over facts.

Among many other recommendations, the University-Wide Data-Intensive Social Sciences Committee has pushed Yale College Dean Marvin Chun — a member of the committee — to gauge how well the QR requirement is working and to consider “either changing the requirement or adjusting its implementation given the increased prominence of computation and data-intensive analysis.”

“After discussions with faculty from across the University, it seems crucial for all Yale College graduates to leave with the basic statistical and research skills and habits of mind to ask probing questions about empirical claims, understand the strengths and weaknesses of different research designs, evaluate the strength of evidence and understand how to incorporate evidence to form judgements and make decisions,” the report stated.

If the University were to revisit its QR requirement, it would join a growing list of peer institutions that have already done so. Harvard University replaced its analogue with a “Quantitative Reasoning with Data” requirement last fall. Stanford University’s “Applied Quantitative Reasoning” requirement follows a similar model. The report also recommends that the proposed committee investigate how Yale stands among its peers regarding students’ minimum exposure to data analysis and statistical reasoning.

Chun wrote in an email on Monday to the News that there are plans to form a committee looking into the issue, or he “may charge an existing committee” for the same purpose.

“The committee will recommend whether the requirement should change, and if so, how it should be revised,” Chun said.

Data in the report suggest that just under one half of all students in the class of 2018 who took the minimum number of QR courses never enrolled in a statistics class. Instead, these students looked to classes like “Introduction to Microeconomics” and “Single Variable Calculus” to meet their requirements. Newer figures are not yet available, but later classes may have bucked this tradition. YData — an introductory statistics lecture course with optional seminars in specialized areas such as data science for political campaigns and text data science — launched last January and has since courted hundreds of students. The report also recommends the expansion of YData.

To Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean of Undergraduate Education Pamela Schirmeister, the potential revisit would help students grow as intellectuals.

“Yale has not reviewed its curriculum since the mid-2000s,” she wrote in an email to the News. “As both the world and the contours of knowledge itself change, we need to ask if our curriculum is preparing students for the world in which they’ll find themselves.”

Schirmeister works closely with other members of the Yale administration to ensure that students develop crucial foundational skills, like writing, foreign language and quantitative reasoning, before they graduate. Those who fail to progress in these areas can unknowingly atrophy their future potential, she said, quoting from the Yale College Programs of Study, and can end up graduating “knowing less than when they arrived.”

Members of the committee either deferred to Committee Chair Alan Gerber or did not respond to requests for comment.

“The ideas behind these skills are fascinating, and these are skills that will help Yale students understand the world and be more effective professionally,” Gerber, who is also the FAS Dean of Social Science, wrote in an email to the News. “That said, we did not take the step of recommending a change in the QR requirement. Rather, we thought that the increased prominence of empirical analysis throughout society and the rise in data availability, computational power, and analytical methods suggested that it was a good time to consider modifying the QR requirement to reflect these developments in research and society.”

Gerber’s committee was organized by former University Provost Ben Polak and convened in January 2018. According to the report, the committee was asked to create a prioritized list of recommendations that could be accomplished with limited to no additional resources.

In his Feb. 24 email announcement to members of the Yale community, current University Provost Scott Strobel unveiled the report — and encouraged faculty members to provide feedback through an online form.

“I am grateful to Alan Gerber and the other members of the committee for the considerable time and effort they devoted to this important and challenging task,” he wrote.

University President Peter Salovey marked data-intensive social science as an academic priority as early as November 2016.

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Alayna Lee |