University Senate approves new data science degree program for fall 2022

By Aliza Majid, Assistant News Editor

The University Senate approved a new Data Science degree program on April 26. It will now have to gain the approval of the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the University of Illinois System before being implemented into the curriculum. 

“If we get those approvals this fall or winter, then current students can start transferring into the degree starting in fall of 2022, and upcoming students entering class in fall of 2023 can apply for these degree programs,” said Matthew Ando, associate dean of LAS.

The X + Data Science degree will function as a double major degree rather than a sole data science degree to allow students to have the opportunity to further their studies through a data science lens. 

Since the University already provides several other majors that expose students to the data science field, instructors felt it was important to create a degree that could tie into existing majors.

“We didn’t think it would be meaningful given the existence of really strong classic data science majors like statistics and computer science,” Ando said. “We wanted a major that would allow us to build something that would directly engage with an application domain.”

Accounting, finance, astronomy and information sciences are the four majors approved for this data science degree program in the last senate meeting. Still, there are plans for more X + Data Science degrees to develop in the future.

This initiative was brought up after a trial course called  STAT/CS/IS 107: Data Science Discovery was launched in spring 2019 to introduce data science and is now part of the course requirements for the degree.

“We got 20 different students from 20 different majors,” said Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider, professor in LAS. “We wanted it to not just be for your typical CS kid. We want it to be like a really diverse group of people from a diverse set of majors to see how important data science is in any field.”

Eight core courses are being developed for the data science component of the degree, and each major program will be creating bridge courses that will focus on developing classes that adapt their majors into this program.

“I think it really makes a lot of sense to have to be an expert in your discipline and an expert in data science,” Fagen-Ulmschneider said. “That was really the model that we went with here with all the degree plans — always X plus data science. It’s infinitely more useful when you’re an expert in a particular domain and able to apply your data science skills to that domain.”

This degree program will allow students to do a capstone project as part of their curriculum that involves applying data science expertise to their accompanied major. The program also intends to create more internship and collaboration opportunities for students in the future.

“There is a huge demand from employers for people who can grapple with data,” Ando said. “Over the next few years, I think we have to create a broad-based collection of opportunities for students to do independent work that they can put in their portfolios to demonstrate their engagement with data size.”

The data science core curriculum has also been going through developments to accommodate a potential data science minor for students who wish to study the material on a smaller scale.  

“There were a number of deans and campus leaders who saw data science as an upcoming field and felt there was a real need to make sure that we have a data science education program so undergraduates can get a degree in data science,” Fagen-Ulmschneider said. “You just see nationally that there’s a ton of need for data scientists, and we want to prepare students for that.”

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