Data Science Empowers Students of Color to Engage with Math Opportunities

During the era of remote learning, Aaron Butler, a 16-year-old student from Compton Unified, embraced data science education through the Young Data Scientists League. In 2021, Aaron, an African American varsity basketball team captain, participated in Compton’s inaugural high school data science class, made possible by UC’s 2020 decision to count such courses as qualifying for high school math credits. He, now pursuing a business economics major at UCLA, shared that “data science sparked my interest in mathematics, which I was previously indifferent about.”

UC’s acknowledgment of data science courses as a math prerequisite for college admission has encouraged counselors at Dominguez High in Compton to recommend students like Aaron to venture into data science without concerns of jeopardizing their chances for university acceptance. This initiative prioritizes college accessibility for our student majority, comprising Hispanic, Black, and Pacific-Islander students, with 94% categorized as socio-economically disadvantaged. Data science serves as a suitable avenue for students ranging from math-averse to math-inclined, offering hands-on, practical applications that align with UC’s four-year math coursework recommendation.

The recent reversal of UC’s decision might dissuade counselors from advocating for data science to students of color, potentially resulting in diminished enrollment and retention in high school math throughout the four years.

The Data Science program at Dominguez High School stands as the solitary course within Compton Unified that provides students with direct classroom instruction in subjects like predictive mathematical modeling, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), sensitivity analysis, and programming. These topics reinforce foundational math concepts taught within the data science classroom, complemented by advanced quantitative reasoning and analysis principles such as linear algebra, 3D vector space, and conditional probability.

As the instructor for Compton’s Data Science course, in collaboration with Stanford’s Youcubed, I (Jason) engage students in advanced math standards to bridge gaps in understanding traditional math courses, like Integrated Math 3, Precalculus, and even Calculus. Students express gaining clarity in their math comprehension through practical application within the data science curriculum, enabling them to grasp subsequent math content effectively.

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This marks a crucial moment in California’s math education landscape. Neural network models, pivotal in AI advancements like ChatGPT, represent a key focus in applied mathematics research. UC’s adoption of data science in 2020 signaled a progressive shift, framing math as a contemporary discipline equipping learners with essential tools for the evolving information sphere. By excluding data science courses as math prerequisites, UC risks relegating math to insignificance, especially for underrepresented students in STEM fields.

The disallowance of data science courses as college admission credits not only undermines STEM field attraction but also deprives non-STEM enthusiasts of coding opportunities, amplifying the digital and wealth divides. UC’s Office of the President highlighted the increasing need for data science exposure across various disciplines, emphasizing its relevance beyond traditional STEM domains.

Delaying math engagement until college entry restricts inclusive educational access, hindering students’ potential growth and STEM involvement. Success in STEM, particularly for Dominguez High students progressing through the UC system, correlates with growth mindsets, cultural competency, positive identities, and supportive environments.

As educational needs evolve, a holistic review involving diverse stakeholders, including school districts, educators, and families, is imperative to address math achievement gaps effectively. Data-driven assessments can challenge assumptions hindering students of color from pursuing STEM fields, advocating for inclusive educational frameworks benefiting all learners.

Data science has demonstrated its capacity to enhance college readiness and STEM engagement, especially for underrepresented students like Aaron, who found the hands-on application of mathematics in data science courses to be engaging. Access to data science empowers students to view mathematics as a relevant 21st-century discipline where they belong.

•••

Jason Lee Morgan, an 18-year math teacher at Dominguez High School in Compton, instructs the Stanford YouCubed’s data science course.

Kagba Suaray, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and statistics at California State University, Long Beach, and graduate adviser for the applied statistics master of science program.

Kyndall Brown, Ph.D., executive director of the California Math Project at UCLA, and Robin Wilson, Ph.D., professor of mathematics at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and Loyola Marymount University, contributed to this commentary.

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