September 23, 2016 | Jacquelyn Hubbard

Data Analytics is becoming more and more prevalent in a growing number of industries.

What do majors like business, political science, kinesiology, public health and English have in common? Data.

While this hasn’t always been the case, recent technological advances in almost every professional discipline have made data analytics skills beneficial in more career paths than ever.

And it’s prompted Calvin College this fall to begin offering a data analytics minor.  

The conversation surrounding the new program began about three years ago when Calvin professors Randy Pruim, Joel Adams and Patrick Bailey started brainstorming how to make this minor an official option for Calvin students. After creating the course list and meeting with other Calvin professors and staff, the minor was accepted.

In a plethora of disciplines

“[Data analysis] mainly focuses on how businesses extract useful information out of all this information they’re getting,” Adams, a computer science professor at Calvin, explained. “For instance, every time you swipe your credit card at a store or buy something online, [businesses] are getting inundated with data. Analytics tends to focus on businesses extracting customer information to create sales.”

But data analytics can be applied to many other fields, too. Health care professionals keep track of patient data to learn better strategies in caring for their patients. Sports medicine specialists use performance data from sports teams’ practices and games that coaches can implement into their game plans, as well as injury prevention strategies. Even Calvin English professor Jim Vanden Bosch uses corpus tools to do research in grammar, to analyze works of literature, and to assist students and colleagues with their own research projects in history, business, marketing and philosophy.

Data and polling

And in light of the upcoming presidential election, new and improved data analysis plays into the polling process. With data analysts having access to increasing amounts of data, polling outcomes could vary for this election more so than in previous elections.

“The [statistics] gap between the candidates four years ago was smaller four years ago, but the outcome was more certain,” Pruim, a mathematics professor at Calvin, said. “This year, understanding both the number and the precision of the number is a really important thing.”

 Although Calvin’s program isn’t geared toward a big data career, Pruim hopes the program will empower students to have an extra boost of data knowledge in their desired workforce.

“[Students] will be able to understand main issues, talk to co-workers with a lot more technical expertise, know what kinds of questions can be answered from data, and be able to evaluate how much money to spend on this or that effort,” Pruim said.

“Like most minors, it’s giving you a taste of something and giving you enough background to speak reasonably with people who know a lot more than you. That’s starting to become a pretty important thing for a business manager—they need to know what they can ask and what kinds of people can get those answers for them,” he added.

Salt and light

However, there are times when companies can abuse the power of data by running unethical experiments that are unbeknownst to their customers. Adams believes that Christian data analysts have a responsibility to speak up against such experiments.

“I think Christians are needed in these positions to moderate that tendency of companies to just choose whatever is going to increase the bottom line, regardless of what the ethical implications of that would be,” Adams said. “Christians need to be involved in this area, to be the salt and light in our culture.”

In this technological age, students may be headed toward an opportunity to analyze data, whatever their career path may be. “For a lot of disciplines, if you know a little programming and you’ve got some data savvy, you’ve got a leg up on the people that don’t,” Pruim reiterated. “It expands the areas that you could work in with sociology, biology, economics; whatever your discipline happens to be.”

More data science options

Calvin is also now offering a major and minor in data science. While the data analytics minor is about using existing software effectively, the data science minor helps students to be able to develop analysis software. And the data science major includes more advanced study and equips students for possible careers as data scientists. The major combines roughly equal portions of computer science and statistics with a substantial cognate in a domain area of the student's choice, where they will apply their data analysis skills.

Alum applications

Joel Baker ‘09 is a data scientist for Nike in Portland, Oregon. “It’s safe to say I use analytics in my work everyday,” Baker said. “I work at Nike in the Direct to Consumer Analytics team and I spend a lot of my time slicing and dicing data in different ways to try and understand our business better. I think more than anything, what I learned at Calvin helped me to be prepared to learn new skills at work.”

Ryan Struyk ‘14 also uses data analysis as a political researcher covering the 2016 election for ABC News. “On any given day, I'm analyzing advertising spending numbers, looking at campaign spending records or diving into polling crosstabs. This requires not only sound data skills but also the ability to translate it into a television script,” Struyk said. “Calvin helped give me the well-rounded education to make snap analyses with precision and make them accessible and interesting for viewers.”

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