Data Across the Curriculum: Teaching Data Skills in Sociology

Casey Oberlin, Assistant Professor of Sociology, understands the importance of using data in the classroom, especially in such a discipline as Sociology, which is commonly viewed by others outside the discipline as a field with less real-life application of hard skills (e.g. data analysis). This conception is far from the truth, and Oberlin’s approach with data in the classroom gives her students a very holistic and interactive view of data analysis in the field that shows how data is part and parcel to the discipline.
Oberlin uses both her introductory Sociology courses and Research Methods courses as opportunities for students to get deeply entrenched with the data-rich, multi-tiered research process of the field. Data in Sociology is very diverse, as it involves both quantitative and qualitative measures, so Oberlin’s approach focuses on getting students exposed to the vast array of data types, as well as the techniques, technologies, and methods used to interpreting each type.

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At the introductory level, Oberlin focuses on data consumption as a first step to data concepts. Students study infographics (see Figure 1) and other data visualizations to learn how to present data and interpret the data being presented. Oberlin’s Research Methods courses are reserved for her experiential-based approach with data that teaches students two data software programs throughout the semester, one quantitative (SPSS) and the other qualitative (Nvivo), shows students the wide range of data utilized by Sociology, and has students grapple with the entire research process for themselves. In Research Methods, students create research questions, hypotheses/expectations, clean or assess the dataset, analyze their results, and present their work in a professional manner. Her heavy guidance through the research process helps to mitigate understandable anxiety about trying new techniques and presenting their ongoing work, setting her students up to then develop their own sustained research project throughout the semester. Oberlin states this immersive method is beneficial to and enthusiastically received by students, as the practice in research opens doors to internships, jobs, and grad schools.

All in all, Casey Oberlin’s utilization of data in the class gives students exposure to the intensive research process that is integral to Sociology and teaches important data skills and concepts that are applicable both in the real-world and in a classroom setting.

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