Tufts expands data science opportunities, applied computational science minor

Alva L. Couch, professor of the Computer Science Department and one of the authors of the Data Science major proposal for the engineering school, is pictured here. (Courtesy Alva Couch)

In fall 2018, Tufts School of Engineering began to offer a bachelor’s program in data science. Additionally, the School of Engineering has recently added a 4+1 B.S./M.S. dual degree in data science to their programs and will begin accepting applications for a Master’s in Data Science starting in fall 2019. These programs were spearheaded by Associate Professors Shuchin Aeron of the Electrical and computer engineering department and Alva Couch of the computer science department. The new degrees reflect the university’s many efforts to meet the growing demand for skills in data analysis, as well as the enthusiasm of students and faculty to expand data science at Tufts.

According to Couch, there are currently around 15 undergraduate students who have declared a major in data science and around 18 graduate students enrolled in the program. He expects an influx of undergraduate students come April, when engineers declare their majors.

The data science major includes a disciplinary breadth requirement, which consists of three or more courses in a related application. According to Couch, the disciplinary breadth portion of the major is student-driven; students can propose disciplinary breadths related to their interests. Couch then contacts faculty members in relevant departments to determine appropriate courses for what he describes as a “data-intensive disciplinary breadth requirement that would lead to an appropriate senior capstone experience in data science.” Some departments have also expressed interest in working with data science students. The classics department, for instance, worked with Couch to create a disciplinary breadth requirement in semantic markup.

“There is no such thing as data science without application,” Couch said. “There are currently students actively pursuing disciplinary breadths in global health, economics … one person even wants to do a disciplinary breadth in sports analytics … I’m happy with that, we will find a way.”

The major also includes a senior capstone experience. “The whole point of the disciplinary breadth and its immediate successor, the capstone experience, is to actually apply some of this to real data,” Couch said.

Alyssa Rose, a sophomore majoring in data science, said she chose the major due to the high demand for data processing skills in the emerging workforce, as well as the more specialized nature of the major in comparison to computer science. However, she believes there is a need for more knowledgeable professors and resources meant specifically for the data science major.

“Currently the data science major … operates as a mere extension of computer science and its department,” she said.

To strengthen the data science undergraduate and graduate programs, Couch said the School of Engineering is in the process of hiring faculty with expertise in fields relevant to data science such as security, natural language processing, robotics and systems. According to Couch, there are currently two available positions.

Couch also said that Tufts has introduced several new courses which “fit the [data science] major really well.” These courses cover topics including human-robot interaction (HRI) and ethics of HRI, deep learning and reinforcement learning.

Due to what Couch describes as a “budget crisis” that hinders funding flexibility between the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering, the bachelor’s program is only available to engineers.

“I cannot afford to expand that number,” Couch said, although he is open to meeting with Computer Science majors in the School of Arts and Sciences to structure their programs around the data science track.

The School of Arts and Sciences, however, has approved a new minor in applied computational science (ACS), an initiative driven by Professor Peter Love of the physics department. The minor is similar to the data science program in the School of Engineering.

Love said the student demand for computational courses “comes in a lot of different flavors.” He has noticed that some students are interested in studying pure computer science, while others are more interested in the application of computation to a different discipline. Students who are interested in the interface of computation and the humanities can follow a digital humanities track. According to Love, the ACS minor is meant for students who wish to combine their computational skills with a scientific or mathematical field.

“This is an interdisciplinary minor, so it’s targeted at a broad spectrum of students that have quite diverse interests,” Love said.

Due to the program’s interdisciplinary nature, Love felt that launching it as a major would be academically restrictive for students and take away from the diversity of the program’s student population. According to Love, the minor requires two preparation courses — which are meant to solidify students’ foundational skills in computer science as well as their field(s) of interest — one course in probability/statistics, two elective courses and a capstone component.

Unlike the data science program in the School of Engineering, Love said that the ACS minor will not be tracked. According to Love, students minoring in ACS do not have to commit to one discipline; there is no rule saying a student who takes computational physics, for instance, has to take other courses related to physics to satisfy the requirements for the minor.

“Applied computational science is about having a set of tools that can be broadly applied across many different disciplines,” Love said. “If a student wants to concentrate in more than one discipline, it’s up to them.”

Love stated that students can declare a minor in ACS starting spring 2019.

The effort to advance data science opportunities includes the new Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC). According to its website, DISC, which was launched in fall 2018, is a “university-wide, interdisciplinary center dedicated to data-intensive research and pedagogy” and it is meant to be a collaborative space where faculty across departments can connect to data science experts to increase research potential. Some areas of interest to DISC include “personalized medicine, open digital health platforms, cyber security, climate change, economic forecasting, and the digital humanities.”

Simin Meydani, vice provost for Research, wrote in an email to the Daily that the primary location for DISC will be at the new Cummings Building under construction on College Avenue, which is expected to be completed in 2021. Meydani also said that there will be space dedicated to DISC on the Boston and Grafton campuses and that the administration is currently in the process of hiring a funding director.

Furthermore, according to Meydani, DISC plans to expand data-intensive education for undergraduate and graduate students with new course offerings in fields such as bioinformatics and health informatics.

“Education and providing opportunities for data science for students is one of the main missions of DISC. The other two pillars of DISC are research and service,” she said.