Data tech helps students grasp world around them

Anyone who has ever entered an address into MapQuest or studied a Google Map overlayed with the locations of tourist attractions has used geospatial technology.

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“It’s literally everywhere now,” said Richard McCluskey, the chairman of the geography department at Aquinas College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Given the acceleration and proliferation of emerging technologies — most people didn’t have smartphones 10 years ago — Aquinas College is updating its courses in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

This fall, Aquinas College will begin offering a new major in biochemistry and molecular biology, which college officials hope will prepare students for doctorate-level professional training, as well as for entry-level health sciences and research positions in industry or academia.

Aquinas College is also in the midst of a $32-million renovation and expansion of its science facilities that the administration says will pave the way for new programs, innovative research and student engagement to prepare tomorrow’s scientists, nurses, engineers and mathematicians.

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Sister Savino

 “STEM education is so important, given how many demands there are in the employment fields for people who are trained in STEM,” said Sister Damien Marie Savino, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist who serves as the dean of science and sustainability at Aquinas College.

Sister Savino also told Our Sunday Visitor that she believes Catholic colleges and universities have an important role to play in STEM education because “we can have a fuller vision of where the sciences fit in the world and in our place as human beings in the world.”

“We start with a sense of awe and wonder that we really try to instill in our students, a sense of the beauty and complexity of the natural world,” Sister Savino said. “So we try not to take a purely instrumental view, and surely not a materialistic view.”

A world of data

One area where Aquinas College has adapted its STEM curriculum is in the field of data analysis.

“It’s a pretty interdisciplinary program. It’s a mixture of math, statistics, computer programming, software use, spreadsheet use, as well as some business know-how,” said Joseph Fox, a mathematics professor who teaches data analytics at Aquinas College.

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Fox

Fox told OSV that Aquinas College established the data analytics program a few years ago given the “explosion” in data that is compiled everyday, around the world, through people using social media, e-commerce and smartphones. Some statisticians estimate that 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last five years.

“Most of the world’s data is relatively recent,” Fox said. “There’s this thought that it should mean something to the companies that produce it, and that’s sort of where data science and data analytics come in. Namely, how do we use all this data?”

Students who major in data analytics are required to complete a wide array of courses that include database theory, two semesters of calculus, linear algebra, principles of marketing, management and operating systems, as well as business research and methodology.

“I get the feeling that (the students) struggle a little bit with the math, to be quite honest,” Fox said. “These are coding people and spreadsheet people. The math is necessary in order to do some of the more advanced statistics, but it might not be their favorite thing in the world. The calculus courses they have to take are tough even for our math majors.”

Fox said the increased demand in government and private businesses for data analysts helped drive Aquinas College to establish its data analytics program. Government agencies and for-profit corporations may have different needs for data analysts, but they all share certain skill sets.

“They have some ability to program and code,” Fox said. “Being a data analyst also requires a certain type of mathematical way of thinking about things, some knowledge of statistics and a kind of procedural, algorithmic way of wading through data, summarizing it and pulling out the most meaningful parts of it.”

Even if they struggle with the math, Fox said many Aquinas students enjoy having an outlet for their analytical interests, and added that data analytics has become a popular minor for students who are majoring in accounting and business.

Ubiquitous technology

Aquinas College also recently began offering a new geospatial technologies concentration in its geography program.

In geospatial technologies, students learn about the map-making discipline of cartography, along with geographic information systems and remote sensing, which is the scanning of the earth from a satellite or high-flying aircraft to obtain information. Virtually all modern technologies and apps that use geography rely on geospatial technologies, said Mary Clinthorne, a geography professor who teaches geographic information systems (GIS) at Aquinas College.

“Google Maps wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people who understand how maps work and how routing systems work,” Clinthorne told OSV, adding that most federal, municipal and county government agencies in the country use some form of GIS technology to manage resources.

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McCluskey

To understand geospatial technologies and GIS, it may help to imagine a Google Map with several layers of information that may include topography, satellite imagery, street names, intersections where accidents are common, and addresses of popular restaurants highlighted. McCluskey, the chairman of Aquinas College’s geography department, told OSV that a park ranger, for example, could use GIS technology to analyze areas of a forest ravaged by gypsy moths.

“Anytime data is collected nowadays, it should really be collected in a way that you can use it spatially,” McCluskey said, adding that when he worked for the state of Washington, he helped compile public data on alcohol and substance abuse rates to help state officials identify which counties were the most hard-hit.

“GIS has invaded much of the public and private sector data analysis,” McCluskey said. “It is very necessary nowadays.”

Integrating sciences

Noting that the expanded and renovated science facilities will have a three-story glass atrium, Sister Savino said Aquinas College is aiming to make its science programs less intimidating to students who may not be STEM majors.

"We don’t want the sciences to be something in a black box somewhere that people feel they can’t touch,” said Sister Savino, who has a doctorate in environmental engineering and a master’s degree in soil science to go along with a master’s degree in theology.

Sister Savino said she often polls students early in a semester to see what they think about the relationship between faith and science.

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“I’m always somewhat disappointed that a lot of students feel it is confrontational,” Sister Savino said. “So I think one of our goals is to try to change that misconception, to allow them to realize that there is a great need for dialogue between science and faith.”

Sister Savino added that the wider culture has long been dominated by the narrative that science and faith are at war with one another.

“We’re just trying, at the very least, to counter that narrative a little bit and propose an alternative,” she said.

Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.