Mathematics Professors at UC explore the integration of data science into their curriculum

The article has been revised as of March 5 to incorporate the endorsement from high-tech executives in favor of the Algebra II prerequisite. Additionally, it now specifies that AP Statistics is intended for students who have finished Algebra II.

A notable assembly of the UC Academic Senate deliberated once more last month on the disputed topic of the required math courses for high school students seeking admission to a California state university.

The decision was made that beginning in the fall of 2025, high school students enrolled in an introductory data science class or AP Statistics will not be able to use it as a substitute for Algebra II to meet the admission criteria for the University of California and California State University.

The Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) has reaffirmed its stance by approving the proposals put forth by a team of math and statistics professors who delved into the matter. The workgroup concluded that none of the purported data science courses meet the standards to replace an advanced algebra course. 

Robert Gould, a professor and vice chair of undergraduate studies in the statistics department at UCLA, and the main author of Introduction to Data Science, expressed his disagreement with BOARS’ ruling. The course was developed with the aid of a grant from the National Science Foundation as part of a math and science partnership project.

“We are disappointed, naturally,” he stated. “We maintain that our course is both challenging and rigorous and equips students with essential knowledge and skills crucial for both career and academic success.”

Going forward, how will UC and CSU accommodate popular data science courses such as CourseKata, Introduction to Data Science, and YouCubed’s Explorations in Data Science within the admission requirements? This broader inquiry will only be resolved in May when the math workgroup releases its next report.

Advocates for data science are concerned that BOARS, which initiated the examination, may categorize data science and potentially statistics under math courses meeting the admission criteria. Amidst the rise in enrollment of high school students in introductory data courses due to the prevalence of artificial intelligence and data-centric opportunities in today’s world, they view these courses as more accessible alternatives to traditional courses like trigonometry and pre-calculus required for STEM majors in college.

A number of high school math educators and administrators have put their names to a letter that is being circulated and will be submitted to the UC regents. The letter reiterates the endorsement for data science and statistics courses while criticizing BOARS for not seeking input from high school teachers and data science experts.

“Our schools and districts have embraced these courses because they provide a forward-thinking 21st-century experience that sparks student enthusiasm, imparts tangible quantitative skills applicable in various career fields, and offers new ways for students to engage with and learn mathematics,” the letter emphasizes.

Pamela Burdman, the executive director of the nonprofit Just Equations, concurred in a blog post titled “The Latest in the Inexplicable War on High School Data Science Courses.” “In essence, school districts are increasingly adopting these courses due to their relevance and appeal to many students who might otherwise overlook mathematics,” she noted.

Will it help or hinder equity?

Critics of using introductory data science courses as substitutes for advanced algebra include STEM professors at UC and CSU. While they express support for data science, they maintain reservations about courses lacking the full spectrum of math topics necessary for students pursuing STEM majors or similar fields that require quantitative skills. By skirting foundational math courses in high school, it is feared that underserved students of color might be disadvantaged rather than propelled towards equity, creating a false impression that they are prepared for statistics, computer science, or data science majors when they may not be. This could lead to the need for remedial courses at community colleges.

“The road to diversifying STEM fields is by keeping underrepresented young students on the path of algebraic thinking a bit longer,” as expressed by Elizabeth Statmore, a math teacher at Lowell High in San Francisco and a former software executive, in correspondence to EdSource in the past. “This will equip them with the necessary mathematical skills to independently decide on pursuing challenging quantitative majors and careers.”

Advocates for maintaining the rigor of Algebra II and encouraging more students to pursue STEM majors are circulating their own attention-grabbing letter titled Strong Math Foundations are Important for AI. The signatories, which include Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, his nemesis Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and CEO of X, as well as executives from Apple, NVIDIA, Microsoft, and Google, “applaud” UC for upholding the math prerequisites.

“Despite the advancements today, traditional mathematical topics like calculus or algebra remain as relevant as ever. In reality, modern AI systems are deeply rooted in mathematics, necessitating a strong command over math for careers in this domain,” the letter asserts. “Neglecting to maintain the standards in the math curriculum within public education could widen the divide between public and private schools, especially those in underprivileged districts, impeding efforts to diversify STEM.”

Surprise actions by UC Office of President

For years, UC and CSU have mandated that students complete three years of math with a minimum of a “C” grade — typically encompassing Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, also known as Advanced Algebra — as part of the A-G requirements, the prerequisites for admission encompassing 15 courses. For students following integrated math, it would be Math I, II, and III. Both systems recommend a fourth year of math, with most students completing at least that; those aspiring for STEM majors undertake two or more additional math courses leading to Calculus.

While BOARS stipulates admissions policies, a small unit within the UC President’s Office, the High School Articulation Unit, examines tens of thousands of courses submitted by developers and high school instructors for approval. Since 2014, the unit has been validating new data science courses and AP statistics as meeting the Algebra II or Integrated Math III content standards. It signified that these courses either built upon the covered content standards or were aligned with the forthcoming standards. 

Despite AP Statistics not encompassing a majority of Algebra II topics, the rationale behind its validation, alongside data science courses — which BOARS later deemed incorrect — was rooted in the belief that Algebra II briefly covers statistics, a subject that often gets overlooked by teachers. The validation posed challenges for introductory data science classes due to the absence of specific content standards set by the state.  The College Board, developer of AP Statistics, specifies that the course is intended for students who have completed Algebra II.

In recent years, the review office staff approved the three most popular data science courses in over 400 high schools. Upon reviewing the courses, the UC workgroup of professors concluded, “We find these current courses labeled as ‘data science’ are more akin to data literacy courses.”

Meetings of UC academic committees, including BOARS, occur behind closed doors. However, minutes from the July 2023 session highlighted faculty members’ dismay regarding the validation of numerous data science courses by the articulation office without their knowledge. “At least one member repeatedly suggested that UCOP has misinterpreted/misapplied the advanced math standard for years — and absent correction, will continue to do so — and so review of all current courses potentially implicated is needed,” the minutes revealed.

While BOARS has not yet ruled out the possibility of approving upcoming data science courses encompassing more advanced algebra content as a substitute for Algebra II, the articulation office has validated Financial Algebra for this purpose. In a statement released in June 2020, BOARS invited alternative courses, viewing the expanded options as a twofold issue of college preparation and equity.

Data science advocates are apprehensive that the math workgroup may veer in the opposite direction and propose treating the three introductory data science courses as elective courses for A-G rather than considering them as fourth-year math courses. Such a decision, according to them, could dissuade future non-STEM majors from taking a senior-year elective course revolving around quantitative reasoning. This position would reinforce a limited perspective that only courses leading to Calculus are deemed valid math offerings in the senior year.

“Revoking the Area C (math) status could significantly impede our ability to enhance students’ statistical and data competencies or encourage enrollment in these programs, particularly at a time when such quantitative skills are becoming increasingly essential for personal and professional functions in the 21st Century,” the letter addressed to the UC regents emphasizes.

Lai Bui, a seasoned math educator at Mills High School in the San Mateo Union High School District, argued that there is no rationale for treating CourseKata, an introductory data science course, differently from AP Statistics, which BOARS has validated as a fourth-year math course. Students engaging in CourseKata leverage coding to analyze datasets, while those in AP Stats rely on graphing calculators, which have limitations, as stated by Bui.

CourseKata was jointly developed by UCLA and CSU Los Angeles in 2017, designed as a semester-long college course and a two-semester high school course; they are essentially similar, shared Bui, who has taught the course for four years.

“CourseKata is unmistakably not data literacy,” she emphasized. “It constitutes a math course, akin to AP Statistics but with a heightened connection to real-world applications. I observe students excelling in math rather than assuming, ‘I’m not cut out for math.’”

In 2023, the CSU Academic Senate expressed dissatisfaction with UC’s approval of data science courses in lieu of Algebra II without consulting them and urged for more collaborative decision-making concerning A-G choices. Subsequently, in January, three CSU professors were added to the 10-member UC math workgroup.

Mark Van Selst, a psychology professor at San Jose State and member of the Academic Preparation and Education Programs Committee, equivalent to CSU’s BOARS, expressed his full support for the decision not to deviate from Algebra II as a foundational knowledge. Nevertheless, he also advocated for recognizing non-traditional fourth-year math courses that enhance quantitative reasoning. He emphasized the need for the UC math workgroup to outline standards or learning outcomes for data science to distinguish between elective courses and advanced math offerings.

Gould expressed his need to review the potential criteria before deciding whether to modify the content of Introduction to Data Science.

“A solid data science education is indispensable for all students, and they all deserve an applicable and beneficial math education,” he remarked. “Despite the committee’s decision, we firmly believe it’s crucial for data science and statistics courses to continue qualifying as fourth-year math courses.”

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