ASU launches new data science degree

By

Rhonda Olson

CareerCast named this the top job for 2020. It reigned for four years as Glassdoor's Best Job In America and topped the LinkedIn Emerging Jobs List. Wired magazine even suggested parents should encourage their kids to become one of these instead of a doctor or lawyer.

What is this highly touted career?

Data scientist.

The School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at Arizona State University launched its Bachelor of Science in data science degree this fall. The new program helps students develop a core set of skills in data analysis that are currently in high demand in industry and would make excellent preparation for further study in any discipline where data plays a prominent role, such as medicine, law or economics.

"In my opinion, data science is what a modern liberal arts education looks like," said Richard Hahn, associate professor of statistics. "Data literacy is increasingly critical to contribute meaningfully to solving the problems of modern society."

Data science is an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of mathematics, computer science and statistics. It consists of methods for collecting, modeling, and analyzing modern data sets rigorously and efficiently.

"Data science is important in today's world because we are collecting more data at a faster rate than ever before," Hahn said. "Data science constitutes the arsenal of techniques that one can use to marshal that data in the service of better decision-making."

Students should consider majoring in data science at ASU because the program exposes them to mathematics, statistics and programming.

"It is a combo, an everything bagel, and important knowledge that provides skills for a variety of jobs today and even more in future," said Clinical Assistant Professor Marko Samara. "Knowledge of at least some basics of data science is becoming a 21st-century literacy.

"As the No. 1 university for innovation, ASU should have a data science program that is not just keeping up with modern trends, but is also a leader in raising the bar and setting up new trends."

One of the unique aspects of the new degree in data science is its interdisciplinary flavor. The degree requires students to complete a “track,” which is essentially a minor field of study in an application area that uses the data science core. Students select one of six tracks: behavioral sciences, biosciences, computer science, mathematics, social sciences and spatial sciences. Students will obtain experience in using data science tools in an application area taught by another science or engineering academic unit.

"Because data science as a field is a collection of methods to be used in the service of empirical investigation, we felt it made sense to require students to dive a little deeper into a particular applied area," Hahn said.

"The rationale for this is less that this choice will dictate the course of one's future study so much as to learn data analysis deeply you have to actually do it — a substantive emphasis allows students this hands-on experience. Working in a substantive area encourages a step away from pure book learning."

The six tracks are hosted at corresponding schools and academic units across the university. All tracks have the same required math and computer science courses, as well as five data science core courses. The rest of the courses are specialized for that particular track. At the end, students take their sixth data science course, data science capstone, which is hosted by the corresponding unit of their selected track.

The mathematics track in data science provides a fresh alternative for mathematics majors who prefer computations and applications of math and statistics over abstract theory.

"This track has some high-level mathematics in it while simultaneously not being too abstract," said Don Jones, associate director for undergraduate programs and associate professor. "Students should consider the new data science degree because it's where the high-paying jobs are right now."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, data scientist jobs will grow more than 31% over the next 10 years, with a median annual salary of over $94,000. A quick search for data scientist jobs on LinkedIn reveals over 20,000 listings.

"Our successful graduates can be competitive when searching for any job that emphasizes a good deal of programming skills in R or Python, data analytics, statistical modeling or the basics of statistical or machine learning," Samara said.

"In the era when it is so easy to access, collect and store large amounts of data, why not use them to develop self-driving cars which would considerably reduce traffic accidents, to help doctors discover a disease much earlier than they would, to make robots learn to do complex, demanding or dangerous jobs instead of humans?" Samara said.

"The more complex job we want a machine to do, the more data we need to collect and teach the machine with, and the more sophisticated data science tools we need to use. This is why data science is important today and its importance will only grow in the future."

The online version of ASU's data science degree will be phased in starting in fall 2021. Social sciences is the only track available initially, but more will be available in future semesters for this innovative and ever-evolving program.

"This will be our school’s first online degree program and it will provide access to this program for nontraditional students who would otherwise have difficulties in enrolling in an on-campus degree program," said Al Boggess, school director and professor.