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Data science from a distance: Biological systems engineering offers introductory data science course during summer term

Situated just north of Bozeman, the rocky peaks of Montana’s Bangtail Mountains rise above nearby pine forests and scattered grasslands. Paige Sauer has never visited the striking locale, but she’s rather well acquainted with one of the meadows there.

It’s the site of an ecological observation station that generates a stream of data, one that she learned to access and analyze in an online course last summer called BSE 375: Introductory Data Science for the Agricultural and Life Sciences. And, in some ways, the remote experience transported her there.

Sharifa Brevert BS’21 during an installation of a research station in Adams County, WI. Stations like this are utilized in BSE 375 (now renumbered as BSE 380): Introductory Data Science for the Agricultural and Life Sciences. Photo courtesy of Paul Stoy.

“I’m always in Wisconsin. It’s where I live; it’s where I go to school,” says Sauer, a senior majoring in biological systems engineering. “I’ve never been to [the Bangtail Mountains] or even heard about it before the class, but I feel like I know everything that’s going on there.”

In the course, students learn how to write computer code and then use it to gather, analyze, interpret, and visualize data, including from large datasets with hundreds of thousands of datapoints. As they build their data science skills, students work with real-world information from the agricultural and life sciences fields, which helps bring their coursework to life.

“There are so many rich data resources in the world, including for agricultural systems and natural systems, but we have to know how to use [the data] to be able to benefit from it,” says instructor Paul Stoy, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. “Data science holds the key to unlocking how to manage systems for productivity and sustainability.”

At the start of the semester, each student is assigned a research station site from among the sites Stoy is actively studying. Each station produces hundreds of thousands of measurements, including datapoints taken every half-hour for temperature, carbon dioxide, and vapor pressure. Students use the data from their assigned sites to complete homework projects and for quizzes, which often take the form of coding challenges. 

Sauer and her classmates used data from sites in Montana, where Stoy used to live and work, but subsequent classes are now accessing data from Wisconsin research stations.

“I’m still building up my research activity in the state, where I will be utilizing the same [ecological observation stations]. It’s exactly the same instruments, just put up in Adams County, Wisconsin,” says Stoy, who joined CALS in 2019. He studies how environmental conservation impacts what is called the “earth system” — earth’s interacting physical, chemical and biological processes — including on managed and unmanaged lands.

Stoy plans to offer the course (now renumbered as BSE 380) in-person during the school year and virtually during summers to offer students the greatest flexibility. Students use a free, open-source software known as “R” for coding; no prior experience is required.

Things start slow, says Stoy, and then ramp up, with the goal that everyone reaches the same coding level by the end of class. By the end, students have a solid foundation in coding, a valuable career skill.

“R is an important program to use in the engineering world,” says Constantin Bensch, a junior majoring in biological systems engineering. “I had some base knowledge of R coming in from a previous statistics class I took. This class did a great job of using real-world examples of projects that I would do in [my career].” 

It’s no secret that coding can be frustrating. It requires an attention to detail that can drive a person crazy; but, when everything works, it can lead to satisfying breakthrough moments.

“The hardest part, probably with any computer language, is just trying to find where you messed up, like a missing comma or quotation mark or whatever it is,” says Sauer. “I would have to re-read through [my code], trying to figure out why things weren’t working, and tweak things. But once you get a few tips and tricks under your belt, it’s [easier].”

Throughout the course, everything builds towards a final project, where each student produces a report with numerous figures, tables, and visual aids that describes their assigned research site.

“Completing the project used all of the skills we learned in class,” says Bensch. “I really enjoyed the satisfaction of finishing my project and getting my code to work.”