New data science major to become available in fall 2018

Halligan Hall, where the computer science and electrical engineering departments are housed, is pictured on April 11, 2017. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily

Tufts has officially approved a new data science major in the School of Engineering, to become available next fall. According to Dean of the School of Engineering Jianmin Qu, this new major results from recent initiatives for progressive data science research and education.

Alva Couch, an associate professor of computer science, co-authored the data science program proposal along with Shuchin Aeron, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. The Board of Trustees officially approved the program in February 2018, according to Qu.

According to Qu, the data science major requires 38 courses, including foundation, introductory, breadth and concentration courses, humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) courses, as well as a capstone experience. Couch described the data science program as an “agile degree program” that will react to new technological developments and innovations in real time.

“Data science is actually a mix of applied statistics, computer science, machine learning and obscure fields such as decision theory,” Couch stated.

Eric Miller, department chair of electrical and computer engineering, emphasized the relevance of making this new major available. He also stated that the program’s development has been spurred on by student interests.

“It’s an important intellectual area of study … data science is a very new area. It combines elements that are relevant to electrical and computer engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, but it’s not any one of those things in particular,” Miller said. “It was important that we — both as a department and as a university — have a good program in this area for our students.”

Miller estimated that 10 to 20 data science undergraduate students will declare a data science major in fall of 2018, when the major becomes available. Aeron expressed his hope that the program would expand in future years.

“We really hope that the program grows in a healthy manner,” Aeron told the Daily in an email. “At this point we anticipate a quick growth in first 2-3 years, reaching a steady state subsequently.”

Couch first identified the need for a data science major as he was conducting his own research and going through the hiring process.

“I found very quickly that I could not hire people that I needed … The computer science major does not give you enough experience in data analysis,” Couch explained. “The data science major started as a simple and self-serving objective to create students that I could hire … It was a very selfish agenda; I needed people with a specific skill set.”

Representing the computer science and electrical and computer engineering programs, respectively, Couch and Aeron worked collaboratively to pass the program proposal. Both Couch and Aeron stressed the need for investment in the field of data science, and the timeliness of this program.

Couch was careful to distinguish data science from computer science. He said data science focuses heavily on analysis, problem-solving and applied machine learning. Miller also stated that data science is based in both theory and real-world applications. Examining data and solving problems has real-world applications in many areas of study, Miller explained.

Aeron and Miller each expressed their high expectations for the future of the data science program at Tufts.

According to Miller, the program will facilitate collaboration and creativity.

“It is time to realize the significant role that computing and learning plays in our daily lives … It is now becoming a reality that significant advancements in material science, biology and other life sciences domains … will only be possible with right data analytic tools supporting the exploration and development,” Aeron wrote to the Daily. “It is really exciting to teach and educate future engineers to exactly do this and teach them how to closely collaborate with folks in bio, physics and other domains to make human life better.”

Qu expressed his support for the program under the School of Engineering, underlining the relevance of the degree and the importance of problem-solving and data analysis in today’s time.

“This is a timely program, as society increasingly needs experts in data-intensive science to help solve real-world problems. The program is designed to educate the next generation of engineers who will go on to empower informed decision-making in industry, government, academia, and more,” Qu told the Daily in an email. “The new major provides more options for our students in a rapidly growing field … An increasing number of employers are searching for data scientists and data analysts. By offering this new major, Tufts is getting ahead of the curve.”