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Beloved ‘Data Challenge Lab’ on ice pending reboot

ICME hopes to revise course to accommodate more students

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When students in “Data Challenge Lab” — a tight-knit class described by multiple students as the best they had taken at Stanford — learned that the course would no longer be offered for future students, they were disappointed. The Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (ICME), which created the class, is considering how to rework the course so that it can be offered to more than 25 students at a time. 

“Stanford does not have enough classes that teach you practical ways to work with the data,” said Abuzar Royesh, a master’s student in international policy and management science and engineering. “We need a class like this.”

The course is expected to return in a revised version. ICME and the Data Science Initiative intend to take the idea behind the Data Challenge Lab and make it a part of the Data Science Initiative, according to ICME Director Gianluca Iaccarino, to make it more scalable.

“It’s not that the class is canceled or that we are not going to do it anymore,” Iaccarino said. “It’s, how can we rescale it? How can we make it not for 25 students a year, but make it like CS 106 so that it becomes the most popular class on campus?” 

“The class was extremely successful,” he added. “It’s just a matter of resources and making sure we have a sustainable future for growing this class.”

The class, which is cross-listed as both COMM 173E and ENGR 150, brought together students of all majors to learn how to grapple with data through real-world projects ranging from analyzing voter behavior in the 2016 election to breaking down climate change data. Adjunct lecturer Sara Altman and adjunct professors Bill Behrman and Hadley Wickman co-taught the course. 

Since beginning five years ago as an experimental project in the ICME, the class was offered every quarter and had a limited enrollment based on application. ICME fully funded the class, which had consistently high evaluations on Carta and was beloved by students.

Manuel Ramos M.I.P. ’19 described it as the most educational in his entire master’s program at Stanford. 

“It was as challenging as it was motivating, exciting and entertaining,” Ramos wrote in an email to The Daily. “I actually use the skills I learned on a daily basis by developing data-driven solutions as a response to challenging problems that developing countries face.”

Sophie Bridgers, a sixth-year psychology Ph.D. student, agreed, adding that the class had both increased her confidence in her programming and data visualization abilities while also creating a strong support network.

“It was hands down the best class I took in graduate school,” Bridgers wrote. “When I took the class, there were only 20 students, so we became a family, which was a really wonderful experience.”

“I am so grateful I had the opportunity to take part in this unique and valuable course,” Bridgers wrote. “It is a course I will never forget.”

Bridgers and other students also reported a deep respect for the teaching team.

“They were easily the most approachable and helpful professors I’ve had at Stanford,” Royesh said, adding that Behrman had helped him on projects outside of the class and to get an internship. “I’ve honestly never seen a professor be so invested in the lives of their students.”

Ramos also praised Behrman’s willingness to help students.

“I believe Bill was the role model that everyone else in the class needed to have in order to motivate themselves to work that hard and learn that much,” Ramos wrote. “He was also really excited about teaching and learning with us, and that was obvious to everyone.” 

The students in the Data Challenge Lab’s final cohort, winter 2019, even made a video thanking the teaching team for the class.

Iaccarino described the interest in the class and its popularity with the students as part of the reason ICME wants to make a more widely available version of the class. 

“I think it’s certainly a testament to the great job that Bill [Behrman] and Sara [Altman] have done over the years,” he said. “It’s certainly a great blueprint of a successful class.”

Contact Danielle Echeverria at dech23 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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