October 5, 2020

Professors to Introduce Plans for New Data Science Major

Camelia Malkami / The Chicago Maroon

UChicago professors are designing a new data science major to be implemented at the College in the near future.

Mike Franklin, Liew Family Chair of Computer Science, and Dan Nicolae, chair of the statistics department, said this proposal comes as a result of the burgeoning field of data science “seeing tremendous interest from students.”

Students are currently able to study data science as a 600-unit minor in the College. The minor was unveiled for the 2019–20 school year.

The major will incorporate elements of computer science and statistics into its framework while also drawing from other sources to be wholly unique, according to Franklin and Nicolae. Some courses that will be part of the major, such as “Introduction to Data Science I and II,” and “Ethics, Fairness, Responsibility, and Privacy in Data Science,” are already offered as part of the existing data science minor.

The major will involve more than simply teaching students to code and analyze data, according to Franklin and Nicolae. Data science “involves a process that begins with question formulation, experimental design, etc., and continues through result communications (e.g., data visualization) and the curation of data sets, predictive models, and analyses,” Franklin and Nicolae jointly wrote in an email.

The email stated, “Throughout this process, there are issues of data ethics, societal impact, policy and regulation, and responsible data collection, use, and organization. Currently, these topics are spread across multiple fields, if they are covered at all. A Data Science major will bring all of these topics into a coherent framework and will help students develop the foundational skills and insights that will allow them to contribute to many fields and to continue to grow their expertise as technology and Data Science continue to evolve and expand.”

According to Franklin and Nicolae, the creation of the new major will include an effort to recruit new data science faculty to the University of Chicago. “This year we will welcome our first two new Assistant Professors as part of a Data Science hiring initiative and will be recruiting additional tenure-track faculty. These faculty will be hired into existing departments but will join a group focused on defining and delivering Data Science programs. We will also recruit Data Science Instructional Professors to teach and mentor the students in the undergraduate programs,” the professors said.

Though they do not have an exact date ready for the major’s offering, Franklin and Nicolae say their current plan is to “obtain the approval for the major this academic year.”

Furthermore, they stated that the major's planning process is still ongoing, and much remains to be ironed out. “We plan to create new classes on foundational issues in Data Science and on applications to different domains of knowledge, but we also have questions that remain to be resolved, such as whether or not there will be some sort of a capstone project and if so, how that would work,” Franklin and Nicolae wrote.

Data science is a growing discipline that has seen much interest in recent years. Peer schools that recently developed majors in data science include Yale in 2017 and the University of Michigan in 2015.

“Unlike Computer Science and Statistics, which have been taught at universities for decades, Data Science education is still quite new and so there is much work to be done in terms of defining a curriculum,” Franklin and Nicolae wrote. “It is still early enough that UChicago has an opportunity to be a real leader in helping to define the field.”