(I recently wrote an answer to What Should be Included in a Data Science Curriculum? on Quora.  Here’s a subset of that answer)

Eugene Wu and I recently taught a 6-day (3 hours per day) course on data literacy basics targeted at computer science undergraduates.  Our initial motivation was selfish: as databases researchers, we didn’t have a lot of experience with an end-to-end raw data->data product pipeline.  After a few trial runs of our own, we realized certain data processing patterns kept showing up, and saw that we had a small course worth of content on our hands.  The important thing here is that even with undergraduate- and graduate-level machine learning, statistics, and database courses under our belts, we still had a lot to learn about working with honest-to-goodness dirty data.

Each module of our course could have had an entire semester dedicated to it, and so we favored basic skills with lots of hands-on experience over intellectual depth and rigor.  We kept lectures to 20-30 minutes, giving students the remaining 2.5 hours to go through the labs we set up while we walked around answering questions.  Lectures allowed students to know what they were in for at a high level, and the lab portion allowed them to cement those concepts with real datasets, code, and diagrams.  All of the course content is available on github, and as an example, here is a direct link to day 1’s lab.

The syllabus we covered was:

  • Day 1: an end-to-end experience in downloading campaign contribution data from the federal election commission, cleaning it up, and programmatically displaying it using basic charts.

  • Day 2: visualization/charting skills using election and county health data.
  • Day 3: statistics to take the hunches they got on day 2 and quantify them, learning about T-Tests and linear regression along the way.
  • Day 4: text processing/summarization using the Enron email corpus.
  • Day 5: MapReduce to scale up Day 4’s analysis using Elastic MapReduce on Amazon Web Services.  This felt a bit forced, but the students were clamoring for distributed data processing experience.
  • Day 6: the students teach us something they learned on their own datasets using techniques we’ve taught them.

While we set out to give computer science students with familiarity in python programming a dive into data, we ended up with folks from the physical sciences, doctors, and a few social scientists who had their own datasets to answer questions about.  The last day allowed them to experiment with their new skills on their own data.  Attendance on this day was lower than the previous days: the majority of the folks in attendance on day 6 were on the more experienced end, and I suspect that the undergrads, who were not yet exposed to data problems of their own, didn’t find it as engaging.  It would be interesting to see how to develop course content that allows self-directed data science for students who still need a bit more inspiration.

I should also say that our attempt is not the first one to bring data to the classroom.Jeff Hammerbacher and Mike Franklin at Berkeley have a wonderful semester-length course on data science.  The high-level outline of the course seems similar, but they get farther into data product design, and jump into each topic in more depth.  Their resources page has a nice set of links to other educational efforts worth checking out.