By Rob Mitchum

From the beginning, education has been one of the primary focus areas of Data Science for Social Good. In 2013, we helped Mesa Public Schools detect and address “under-matching,” when a graduating student applies to colleges below their qualifications. Last year, we worked with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, improving the performance of their “early warning system” for struggling students in danger of graduating late or dropping out. These projects are a good fit for the fellowship, not just because of the enormous impact of improving schools, but because so many fellows enter the program with a passion for education, and often, firsthand experience teaching.

Amy Hepner took an unorthodox path to teaching math at a Denver public school. After studying math and sociology in college, Hepner went to work as a community organizer in Brighton Park, a southwestern Chicago neighborhood. There, she worked on youth leadership and advocacy programs focused on substance abuse and violence prevention, as well as community development, immigration reform, and other issues important to Brighton Park residents. In this role, Hepner saw firsthand the potential — largely unrealized — of using data for social good.

“I remember being hungry to use more data,” Hepner, 27, said. “By harnessing that quantitative information, social good causes can make informed, strategic decisions and ultimately have a larger effect. If you go a business, they want to see data; but at many social organizations, we tend to not be so hung up on the numbers. We tell stories instead.”

A growing interest in education theory led Hepner to teaching in Denver, at a school then ranked as 25th worst in the nation. Quickly, she realized that mathematics would only be part of her mission.

“My function was half teaching and half social work,” Hepner said. “My students were victims of the many social concerns associated with poverty: homelessness, food insecurity, community and family violence, immigration fears, special needs, failing schools, and gang involvement. Teaching math in a vacuum wouldn’t work, they couldn’t ignore their reality and neither could I, and found myself dedicating after-school and classroom time to student empowerment.”

Feeling that she could create broader changes outside of the classroom, Hepner entered a master’s program in statistics at Ohio State University. After completing that program this spring, she hopes that DSSG will help her continue to merge her interests in social work and quantitative analysis.

“I’m looking forward to finding a community of like-minded people, Hepner said. “No one person can know everything, so for me it’s about working with people and having a long term community that you can bring issues to and bounce ideas off of. The best solutions are collectively developed.”

Kerstin Frailey also gained teaching experience in a challenging environment: a men’s maximum security prison, where she designed and instructed an applied statistics course for the Cornell Prison Education Program called “Math That Matters.” Every week, Frailey and her teaching assistants would pass through metal detectors, past barred doors locked behind them, across the prison yard, and into a small schoolroom where prisoners eagerly waited for the class.

“Enthusiasm is not something that tends to be in surplus in an undergraduate statistics course. These students were different. They treated the course as far more than just the quantitative requirement needed to complete an associate degree. For some students, of course, walking in graduation was an incredible motivation. Other students had graduated many classes before and were desperate for mental stimulation. Some were devoted to gaining any skills that might help them become more employable when they left,” Frailey, 28, wrote in her DSSG application. Many students in the Cornell Prison Education Program, though, knew they’d never get the chance to apply these new skills in the outside world. “But, ” she emphasizes, “they still passionately want to learn.”

Frailey’s work with the prisoners was the latest instance of a long history of volunteer work — in Chicago, Mexico City, and Ithaca — in parallel with a lifelong love of learning. “I always seem to come back it,” Frailey says of math, referring to her abrupt change from four years of college studying human sciences to mathematical sciences. “I loved my time in lab and reviewing field footage, but I’m very happy to have found my way back,” she says. “It feels more like home.”

As a Ph.D. student at Cornell, she’s both learned new techniques and found gratification in statistical consulting for researchers in biology, materials science, and other fields. “It’s extremely interesting not just to see what other people are doing, but also to see how problems are formulated in other fields,” Frailey said. “It’s led to research for me. But, more than that, it’s helped me recognize problems that we as statisticians are not yet addressing. And important ones that we should be.”

While she still has a couple years left in her program, Frailey hopes to gather more experience beyond campus, applying statistics to real world challenges. In DSSG, she’ll get that opportunity — as well as a chance to return to the Chicago area, where she was raised.

“I’ve become more focused on producing implementable and practical solutions,” Frailey said. “It is a kind of unfortunate mark of academia to produce wonderful, beautiful solutions that can never be applied. Now, I’m driven more and more to have a hand in effecting real change.”