Universities Expand Curriculum To Meet Data Scientist Demand

Technological advances and market forces are driving demand for data scientists, and universities are stepping up to fill the need by expanding their curriculums. Here's a closer look at some of the programs.

Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer

December 16, 2015

7 Min Read
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Data science isn't new, but as technologies and the job market have changed to create more demand for these skills, university offerings must change, too.

In some cases, existing courses and degree programs are simply being rebranded. In other cases, faculty members are purposely adding data science concepts to existing courses and creating new courses and degree programs.

"A case can be made that every student should develop data science skills. Computational thinking is another core part of the curriculum for a well-educated individual whether or not they become a programmer so they can understand the nature of what's involved and apply critical thinking to data analysis and data analytics," said Dan Lopresti, chair of Lehigh University's department of computer science and engineering, and also director of Lehigh's interdisciplinary Data X initiative.

[Online options are also expanding for training in analytics and big data. Read Bridging The Big Data Skills Gap With Online Training.]

It isn't always clear where data science should reside since it is an interdisciplinary topic. There is also the question of whether an introductory data science course should be an elective or a requirement for some or all students. Here's a sample of what's happening now.

Oxford Combines Data Science and the IoT

The University of Oxford is working on a continuing education course that combines data science and IoT so that students can understand how they work together and so that they can subsequently make predictions.

"People are beginning to realize that a course like this is very valuable," said Ajit Jaokar, who leads the course. "The data science involved in banking has a different set of problems than the data science in smart cities, so we decided to look at this program from scratch to determine how people can best learn and this is how we started."

Louisiana Tech Fine-Tunes Offerings

Louisiana Tech focuses on engineering and computer science. Recently, its faculty reviewed the university's curriculum to determine which relevant classes it already had, which new courses it needed, and which classes needed an infusion of data science material. Now the school of business has a computer-information-science department and a new analytics course. Louisiana Tech is also building a state-of-the-art innovation lab so the students can experiment with IoT and big data.

"Historically, we've had strong mathematics, statistics, and data mining all the way up to the PhD level. We were already doing a lot of data mining, and had a lot of classes focused on algorithms to work in distributed databases and new technologies. We're also doing a lot of IT work," said Rhonda Syler, professor and lecturer in the department of computer information systems at the school's college of business.

Miami University Expands Data Science

The Farmer School of Business at Miami University recently expanded its information systems and data analytics offerings, establishing a center for analytics and data science. The university has offered a business analytics minor since 2009. It also offers an analytics major that's a joint program between the Farmer School of Business and the college of arts and sciences. There is also an information systems program that's focused on data management, data processing, and data governance.

"We have redone our undergraduate analytics studies so [the students] take an intro stats class and then go into an introduction to business analytics. All of the students at our college will be required to take [the introduction to business analytics] course, which will be available in Fall 2016," said Allison Jones-Farmer, professor and Van Andel chair of analytics and director for the center for analytics and data science at Miami University.

The introduction to business analytics course will cover basic data concepts, data management, data analytics, and data mining.

The University of Albany Launches a New College

The University of Albany has had computer science and informatics programs. Other aspects of data science are covered in its Rockefeller College of Public Policy. The university is in the process of launching a new college of engineering and applied sciences and an institute for advanced data analytics which will be housed in the college of engineering, but which will not be exclusive to the college of engineering.

"I model this as a four-layer cake: the bottom layer is most rooted in math and baseline science. The next layer is tool development, algorithms and interfaces. The layer above that is where you start to map to applications. You're doing data preparation, you're spotting opportunities and so on, which is more cross-disciplinary. The top layer is policy issues with the public pulling and mining data and where the users sit," said Kim Boyer, the interim dean of the University of Albany's college of engineering and applied sciences.

Drake University Responds to Industry

Businesses are demanding data-savvy graduates from Drake University. The university leveraged its existing expertise in mathematics, computer science, and business to create a cross-college program that combines classes from the college of business and the college of arts and sciences. Students can receive a data science degree from either college, although the requirements for each differ.

"There are four different pieces you need: statistics, computer science, information systems, and applications areas. We developed a program that's centered around statistics and computer science and we created a program that's about half statistics and half consumer science," said Brad Meyer, associate professor and information management and business analytics department chair at Drake University.

Drake is currently developing a five-course sequence in business analytics that everyone will take. It will include a couple of courses in statistics, a course in databases and a course in operational management. The classes already existed but there is now more cross-functional coordination, better clarity about the subject of analytics, and new learning objectives, Meyer said.

The University of Texas Expands Business Analytics

The University of Texas recently replaced its master of science degree in information technology and decision sciences with a master of science in business analytics.

"If you think about the framework for the data analytics models, you have your backend, where data is coming in from different places, and you have to [store it]," said Mary Jones, professor of information systems and chair of the department of IT and decision sciences at University of Texas. "You have the front end where users are trying to get access through visual tools and dashboards. Then you've got the middle where all the analytics takes place with the models and the middleware and so forth. Our master of science program is heavily focused on analytics although we are doing more on the front end with visualization."

New classes include big data analytics and Hadoop. In Fall 2016, the University of Texas will offer a bachelor of business administration in business analytics, which is now a business administration degree in decision science. The change represents the greater emphasis on analytics.

Lehigh University Launches "Data X" Initiative

Students at Lehigh University are demanding more data science and analytics classes. And, of course, companies are eager to hire students with such knowledge. As a result of both of those things, the university is adding new courses and contemplating new degree programs.

Meanwhile, enrollments in data-related courses are doubling and tripling from across the university.

We have a long tradition of interdisciplinary education among the various disciplines," said Dan Lopresti, chair of Lehigh University's department of computer science and engineering and director of Lehigh's interdisciplinary Data X initiative.

"Last year we decided to have this initiative called Data X. We're going to have a strong core focus on computer science skills, data science, data analytics, data mining, and machine learning. Core computer systems are important because you've got to be able to capture, store, and secure the data so we're talking about things like mobile applications, cloud computing, distributed systems, and cybersecurity. Then there are the sensing and machine learning technologies," Lopresti said.

The initial focus areas include consumer analytics, digital media, and connected health. Next semester the university will introduce a basic data science course, a basic theory of data mining course and a privacy preserving data mining course. In a year or so, Lehigh will start to define requirements for a minor in data science and a masters degree in data science, Lopresti said.

About the Author(s)

Lisa Morgan

Freelance Writer

Lisa Morgan is a freelance writer who covers business and IT strategy and emerging technology for InformationWeek. She has contributed articles, reports, and other types of content to various publications and sites ranging from SD Times to the Economist Intelligent Unit. Frequent areas of coverage include big data, mobility, enterprise software, the cloud, software development, and emerging cultural issues affecting the C-suite.

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