In the fall of 2024, the Department of Psychology hopes to launch a new, innovative undergraduate major and minor in Behavioral Data Science. It would be one of the first such programs in the nation.
“It’s really a reenvisioning of what an education in psychology can be and how we assess it,” says Professor David Schnyer, chair of the department. “The program will develop a new curriculum to effectively infuse the data science world with a much-needed understanding of human psychology and behavior.”
The proposed program’s uniqueness, said Schnyer, stems from its combination of rigorous instruction in data science skills merged with a deeply human-centered approach. In addition to traditional psychology concepts, courses would address topics such as data extraction, organization, and visualization; text and voice analysis; mining social media data; chartering behavior with GPS activity; data simulation and modeling; applied machine and statistical learning.
The program plans to connect undergraduate students to research labs at UT where they can put their data skills to work, exploring real data through summer internships and capstone projects. It also aims to foster industry relationships, tailor its educational initiatives to in-demand skills, and cultivate an internship referral program with industry experts.
The approach is reverse engineered, in part, from what psychology faculty have observed about the career paths of their students over the past decade. The undergraduate major is one of the most popular at the University, but few of those students go on to postgraduate careers in the field. At the same time, many of the department’s PhD students are poached from academia by tech companies that want expertise in human behavior and experimental methods that augment their companies’ data-gathering projects.
The department is addressing this new university-to-industry path directly by forging relationships with industry partners. Franco Pestilli, associate professor of psychology and member of the data science task force, underscores this by noting that “the program is assessing real industry needs and modeling the curriculum to address those needs as students work toward their degrees. The resulting human-centric, data-science workforce has the potential to facilitate ethical progress while promoting the good of society.”
There are currently very few other universities that focus on behavioral data science and its human-experience-centered approach. The planned program has the potential to position UT and the Department of Psychology as pioneers in rethinking the way that psychology education can equip students with an understanding of the ethical responsibilities of their skillsets, and how their work directly affects people’s day-to-day experiences of the world. The degree will help cultivate a toolkit to apply students’ skills to today’s most ambitious data problems.
The development phase of the program has been made possible by the enthusiastic support of College of Liberal Arts Dean Ann Stevens, who notes: “The new Behavioral Data Science major will embody what liberal arts education is all about: forward-looking innovation that engages students both in and outside the classroom to develop their skills as thinkers, researchers, and professionals.”