New quantitative sciences major unites big data with the liberal arts

By Megan McRainey | Nov. 3, 2014

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Greg Martin, assistant professor of political science, teaches the quantitative sciences major’s gateway course and says it's interesting to teach a course in which students come from such diverse subject areas. Emory Photo/Video.

Emory sophomore Kentucky Morrow was working with a professor on research on the Iraq insurgency when he had an epiphany — knowledge of computers and mathematics is more vital to conflict resolution than he'd ever anticipated.

"That really sparked my interest in statistical methods. It was through my work as a research assistant that I understood how important it was to have a solid quantitative background. That's where the future of the field is," Morrow says.

Morrow plans to someday do academic research related to international conflict but, for now, he's decided to pursue Emory's new quantitative sciences major so he can tackle the collection, analysis and use of large data sets before he embraces his eventual conflict specialty.

"There are increasing amounts of data that allow you to analyze conflict theories which were once unanalyzable," Morrow says.

For instance, there's much more specific data about war-related deaths, where those deaths occurred, military strategy in conflicts, populations in affected areas, GDPs of the country and so much more, Morrow says. He's currently using quantitative methods to look at documents recovered after the Iraq War from Al-Qaeda cells to determine whether there are correlations between the wording or timing of those writings and events related to the conflict.

Saving the world with big data

When we envision someone working with massive data sets, or "big data," we might picture a corporate marketer or researcher. Now, we can add everyone from poverty and education researchers to environmental scientists and public safety experts to that list — people who are using data to help governments, non-profits and society at large make informed decisions about how to address some of the world's greatest challenges.

Emory's new quantitative sciences major represents a new direction for big data education by focusing on disciplines related to the liberal arts, including anthropology, political science, history, economics, women's studies and psychology (and soon biology).

Quantitative sciences majors pick one of these disciplines to anchor their major (which functions much like a double major) and then supplement their knowledge of the discipline with in-depth courses about quantitative theory and methods that teach them to analyze and use data related to that discipline. The major also aligns with Emory's "The Nature of Evidence" Quality Enhancement Plan, encouraging students to be critical thinkers ready to support their arguments with different types of evidence and data.

There's high demand for people able to understand and use the unprecedented torrents of data now available, says Cliff Carrubba, professor and chair of political science and director of Emory's Institute for Quantitative Methods and Theories, which oversees the new quantitative science major created this fall.

"We heard from government organizations, non-profits and businesses that these skills were needed. We also heard from our students that they were very interested in learning these skills," Carrubba says.

QTM 100, the introductory course for quantitative sciences, but not part of the major, has grown faster than any other course in the College of Arts and Sciences. It is now among the courses that draw the most students every semester, says Joanne Brzinski, senior associate dean for undergraduate education. 

"The quantitative sciences major builds on student interest, providing a pathway for those who want to pursue more coursework of this kind. The major is inherently interdisciplinary and represents a triumph of collaboration," Brzinski says. "It emerged after a multi-year conversation among social sciences departments and math about how to support the need for courses in quantitative methods in the social sciences." 

Non-profits and governmental organizations in particular say they need well-rounded students who both understand the group's mission (poverty, pubic health, education, etc.) and have the programming and data analysis skills to help organizations most effectively use data, Carrubba says. This combination of skills isn't common among the liberal arts students drawn to these organizations and professions, but that's changing, Carrubba adds.

A sea change

Adriana Stivers, a sophomore, arrived at Emory last fall without much of a mathematics or computer background but with a certainty that she wanted to work with animals someday.

"My true passion is animals. I wanted to focus on saving endangered animals," Stivers says.

Though she was unsure about her major, Stivers was sold when she learned about quantitative theory and methods. She realized that she could combine applied mathematics, statistics and biology to reach her ultimate goal of saving endangered animal populations.

"My focus will be population ecology. And what better way to save endangered animals than to save their population?" Stivers says. "I'm planning to use computational modeling, correlations in population numbers and programming skills. Those are tools I can use to save animals."

While Stivers admits that math and computers weren't natural strengths, she's resolved to master them in order to be a better population ecologist. She's convinced that quantitative science will be vital to her area and many, many others.

"You can see in the professional world, things are gearing more and more toward quantitative skill sets. I recently talked with someone majoring in psychology who said every internship she found called for a background in computer science or quantitative skills. It's becoming a more and more relevant skill for people to have," Stivers says.

Morrow echoed this sentiment, saying math and computers were a weak point for him but that he knew he'd need to receive extensive training in them to better study international conflict.

The major is tailored to help students from a wide variety of backgrounds build a strong quantitative foundation for whatever they'd like to study, Carrubba says.

Greg Martin, assistant professor of political science, is teaching the major's gateway course. He says it's interesting to teach a course in which students come from such a diverse array of subject areas.

"I like having students from different backgrounds in the class. For one, it lets me use a broad range of examples to illustrate various ideas – I don't have to constrain myself to just political science," Martin says.

Connecting students through data

Ready to spread the word about the value of big data to students of all kinds, Morrow is helping to launch an undergraduate quantitative sciences club (name to be decided), which will participate in data contests and high school outreach, as well as host big data-related speakers, workshops and other events. The group's mission will be to build interest in quantitative science and help motivate and support students pursuing the major.

Stivers says more students, regardless of the area they wish to study or their innate aptitude with math and computers, should take a closer look at how quantitative sciences may help them reach their goals.

"I'm an artist and I love to play with animals. I never saw myself doing computer science and high-level math," she says. "But all those classes are in themselves an art form. More people than they think can connect with it."

Five reasons to study big data

1. Want to be a lawyer, policy expert, government worker, scientist or businessperson? No matter what career you’re planning (or already in), you’ll likely be encountering and using data more and more with each passing year.

2. Want to be a top-notch employee? Employers want you to understand and work adeptly with data. Check the postings for jobs and academic research positions; you’ll see many calls for quantitative skills.

3. How well do you understand the claims made by politicians, governments, corporations and media outlets? Thinking critically about how data is collected and used is an important part of citizenship. You must understand and interpret data for yourself to make informed decisions.

4. How well do you understand your doctor’s decision to prescribe a medication or how your test results are interpreted? How about recommendations from your realtor or financial adviser? More data than ever is available to help us make informed decisions about our personal lives by critically interpreting the data involved in those decisions.

5. Want to make a positive impact on the world? Data can help with that too, helping you decide which causes and organizations might be the best use of your money and volunteer time.