Most Hillsdale College students take time for leisure over Fall Break, but for the first time in recent history, students have the option to take a class instead.
The class, Visualization and Analysis of Data, will be taught Oct. 17 – 20 by George Forman, a senior machine learning scientist for Amazon. Forman will also give a lecture on Monday, Oct. 22.
“We offer the class to provide tangible skills,” said Mark Panaggio, assistant professor of mathematics. “Given only a few days, data visualization is as close to a universal use in coding as can be, because the course is meant to reach a broad audience on campus.”
Panaggio defined data visualization as looking at data in an informative way, and dips into some computer programming techniques.
“The class is a hybrid of theoretical knowledge about visualization design and practical knowledge about how to do it in Excel and Python,” Forman said in an email.
The class will be brief, but Forman said he sees this as a good introduction to data analysis and programming.
“It’s nice to have a short-breadth introduction, so you can pick your path, or even know that you don’t want to go further down those paths,” he said. “You can validate that you like the real thing before you go further, and if you don’t like it, the information gained has even greater value to you, so you can change course sooner.”
One purpose of data visualization, Forman said, is “discovering the patterns and correlations in one’s area of study.” It’s also helpful for “communication with your audience, so they can easily absorb the most important points of your findings.”
The class has attracted students from many different disciplines, including economics, finance, French, Greek, and chemistry. Only one declared math major and one declared applied mathematics major are taking the class. There are several undeclared students in the course, but Forman believes the subject matter is universally applicable.
“In this increasingly technological world, data analysis is becoming pervasive,” Forman said. “For an example, in the humanities, word frequency analysis is used to help determine the authorship of contested writings. Every discipline is being touched, so familiarity with some technology for analyzing data will be useful.”
According to Professor of Math and Computer Science Thomas Treloar, Forman hoped to attract a wide range of students.
Registrar Douglas McArthur said there has never been a course over Fall Break during his time at Hillsdale. He expressed surprise that 17 students signed up for the 25 potential spots as soon as the class became available.
Treloar attributed the original class idea to Ken Koopmans, executive director of Career Services.
Koopmans had the “idea of looking at connections to the college, and seeing their skill set, and what they could offer,” Treloar said.
The course, which is listed as an interdisciplinary study, covers slightly different material than some courses already offered by the math department.
“There is some programming, but not as much programming as people would like,” Treloar said. “We have math stats classes already, and several courses are already pointing in that direction.”
Sophomore Caleb Ramette is taking the course because he saw it as an easy opportunity to jump into Python programming.
“I don’t have the kind of time for a full class, so I’m thankful for this class giving me that opportunity,” he said.
Ramette said he’s most interested in using the class as a starting point, to learn the “base principles.”
“It’s easier to get that base first, then apply it to specific problems.”