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Data analysis for the social sciences

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Big data is the latest trendy skill set to embolden modern résumés. The ability to analyze data patterns and associations and relate it to human behavior is essential in the workforce. Data analysis is not merely sequestered to math and science classes. Instead, TU’s Department of Sociology has made data exploration an integral component of its curriculum.

This spring, Travis Lowe, an assistant professor of sociology, launched a new class — real world data applications. “The purpose of the class is to give students hands-on experience handling things that are bookending the traditional data analysis process,” Lowe said. “We are looking at data collection, management, and visualization as part of telling the story.”

Group PresentationAs a class project, students assisted a real client with their data collection and organizing needs. The students selected the Coffee Bunker, a nonprofit facility that provides a safe and friendly environment for veterans to enjoy mental and emotional support. From meetings for addictions to providing career assessments, the Coffee Bunker delivers a wide range of necessary veteran programs, but it did not have its data collection organized. TU students not only structured the data, but also presented it in a powerful way to inform potential funders.

“This class has really helped me in terms of my confidence going into internships or first-year job positions,” Hannah Vissers, a junior sociology major, explained. “Data is the new ‘in thing.’ Knowing that I have the resources and skills to do that without feeling completely overwhelmed is helpful. Plus, it looks great on a résumé.”

When digesting data, Lowe wants his students to beware of making common mistakes. Students started the class considering the ethics of data by reading Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best. “Best cautions against making wrong comparisons and ones that don’t make sense,” Lowe said. “He even shows how one single statistic, when construed differently, could support one side of an argument or another.” A strong moral compass is imperative for good data analysis.

The production of knowledge is inherently a sociological question. Ease with statistics is a skill in high demand. Armed with basic statistical analysis, TU sociology students are more conscientious citizens. “Being a critical consumer of quantitative information is increasingly important to being an informed voter and citizen,” Lowe said.