News | Academics

Post-bac program at J-school focuses on computer science, data

  • Yue Ben / Senior Staff Photographer
    MEET THE PRESS | Cathy O'Neil is the director of the Lede Program, a post-bachelor program that will teach computer science and data.

The Journalism School and the computer science department are teaming up.

The Lede Program, a post-bachelor program designed for those with little to no background in computer science, will teach computer science and data analysis in the context of journalism.

According to program advisor Mark Hansen, the Lede Program will serve as a stepping stone to the dual degree program in computer science with the School of Engineering and Applied Science and function as an independent program for journalists to learn basic coding.

“This program, Lede, actually is going to serve a number of disciplines and try to get people over the gap—get them ready to go on to these more advanced research practices,” Hansen said. “Data and computation are becoming bigger and bigger parts of every field on campus.” 

There is a one-semester program, which will run from May until September, and a two semester program that will run from May until December. “Very few people applying to the Journalism School are prepared to go onto a master’s degree in computer science,” Hansen said. “They come to us from the humanities, social sciences, and they haven’t had that kind of background, that kind of training.”

According to Hansen, the cohort of people admitted to the dual-degree program this year were different from those admitted to the regular Journalism School program. 

“The Lede then was an attempt to try to bridge the gap between an undergraduate training that was free of computation, free of data, free of all that, and prepare students for a graduate training that might require that,” Hansen said.

Cathy O’Neil, the director of the Lede Program, believes Lede can be valuable to anyone who wants technical knowledge in computer science such as computational skills, data analyses, and algorithms though the program exists within the Journalism School.

“If you think of the data world as a set of tools that you wish you could use—that’s the way I approach them, they’re tools—how much better could you achieve your current goals if you also knew how to use those tools,” O’Neil said. 

The one-semester course will teach basic computer science skills and will look at how creative practices are changed or shaped by data, code, and algorithms. The two-semester program will have more advanced computer science courses. 

The classes will be team-taught with a primary instructor and co-instructor chosen from different fields, including professors of English and history, and Chris Wiggins, the chief data scientist for the New York Times and an associate professor of applied mathematics at SEAS.

“I’m super looking forward to the classes, I think they’ll be very colorful,” O’Neil said. “We’ll have skills and we’ll have context. We’ll have, like, examples and we’ll have projects and we’ll have data journalists coming in explaining how they did this whole thing. I expect the students will learn a lot.”

O’Neil said that the program can serve for advanced research in fields other than journalism.

“The people who are applying to the summer are all over the map,” O’Neil said. “We have a scholar in medieval studies in English, people who are already journalists, people who want to become journalists—not only journalism students are interested in this program. Students from the School of International Public Affairs are interested for public policy reasons. Basically everywhere that you see big data entering that industry there are people who want to understand basic techniques in big data—that’s why we’re seeing interest from all over the place.”

Hansen said the ultimate goal of the Lede Program is to teach students to question and think critically.

“So we’re really proud that the School of Journalism can be sort of a catalyst for a lot of this. I think it’s part of our larger mission to help the journalists in the school think more critically about technology because of the simple fact that data and data processing are changing systems of power in our society, and journalists ... have to be able to tell us what’s going on, they have to be able to hold people accountable, so they really have to understand this material.”

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Chris Wiggins is a computer science professor. He is a professor of applied mathematics. Spectator regrets the error.

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