Tufts Offers New Data Science Degree

The bachelor’s program starting this fall offers training for students in rapidly growing field
abstract image of binary data and light
“The understanding of the world that is coming about because of this revolution in data analysis is really unprecedented and exciting,” Kathleen Fisher said. “It’s not just about getting a great job—it’s fundamentally interesting.” Photo: Ingimage
March 19, 2018

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A new undergraduate degree-granting program in data science will be offered within the School of Engineering starting this fall.

The Bachelor of Science in Data Science encompasses principles and practices that support real-world problem solving through data analysis, said Alva Couch, an associate professor of computer science who co-wrote the program proposal with Shuchin Aeron, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The program, administered jointly by the departments of computer science and electrical and computer engineering, is expected to draw School of Engineering students looking for a specialized degree in data science, Couch said. The new career path will give students ample experience with data analysis techniques, including statistics, data visualization, and machine learning.

Couch said he is encouraged by student enthusiasm for the program, which reflects demand for skills that apply to a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, medicine, business, education, and politics. 

“There are freshmen and sophomores beating down my door right now trying to declare it,” he said. “For a program that doesn’t exist yet, that’s pretty good.”

Their enthusiasm highlights how data analysis has rapidly become a “pervasive component of contemporary research” that’s crucial to stay competitive and efficient, he said. Skilled data analysts can offer crucial insights that identify trends and influence investments in research and marketing strategies. And it’s no wonder that students are already thinking of careers in the field. The job of data scientist held the top spot last year for the second year in a row on Glassdoor’s list of 50 best jobs in America. 

Kathleen Fisher, chair of the Department of Computer Science, agrees that the program responds to a “growing need for people with this expertise and a demand from students who want to deal with data in a sophisticated way.”

And while some students are focused on a future career using these skills, she also believes it appeals to students who are intellectually curious about how the world works. “The understanding of the world that is coming about because of this revolution in data analysis is really unprecedented and exciting,” Fisher said. “It’s not just about getting a great job—it’s fundamentally interesting.”

Couch got the idea for the program about four years ago. One of his “many hats,” he said, is that of senior software architect for data services for the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science. “I couldn’t hire people there with the skills that I needed,” he said. “So I saw this deficit an as opportunity, and starting putting my ideas together.”

Those ideas got a “major push” after he met with a student group called Enigma, formed around a shared fascination with data analysis. “They had a pizza night where I gave a talk and shared some of the basic problems we address with data discovery,” Couch said. “They were excited by the possibilities, and at that point, I realized I had a solid chance of making this a real program.”

Couch expects to offer to about twenty engineering undergraduates at a time, and—like other engineering degrees—will require thirty-eight courses, including courses in computer science, engineering, math, the natural sciences, statistics, and classes in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

The program also includes “disciplinary breadth options”—a sequence of three courses that lead to capstone project. Varied in focus, these options draw on courses in civil and environmental engineering (Smart Cities, Water Security, and Global Health) and branch out to the School of Arts and Sciences, with options in classics, computational physics, chemistry, and biology.

Those partnerships, Couch said, are a “clear statement that there is no such thing in data science separate from application.”

The program is also unusual, he added, because it doesn’t add any new resources; it builds on strengths across the School of Engineering, incorporating courses that already exist. “It takes an engineer to think like that,” he said. “My mind is stuck in global mode. I always look at everything. I never look at a small piece of something without looking at everything around it. You can see that in this program.”

Eric Miller, chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering, said it’s also a program bound to appeal to a generation of students who need no introduction to “how a computer can look at data and extract patterns from that data automatically,” citing Amazon’s Alexa and Google Translate as examples. “A lot of that software is open source, and our students have already downloaded it and played around with it before they came to Tufts. They know its potential, and they want to do more.”  

While developed separately, the degree shares a common mission with the new Data Intensive Studies Center. The interdisciplinary initiative will connect data science experts with scholars who want to use data-intensive techniques to advance their fields.

Couch said he was indebted to Engineering Dean Jianmin Qu for “encouraging us to pursue this program. We are fortunate to have a dean who appreciates bold risk-taking in our teaching here at the School of Engineering. We share a futuristic attitude, in that this program provides specific tools but will also, no doubt, evolve and change to keep pace with this rapidly growing field.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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