UC Berkeley Division of Data Sciences works to finalize new major by next semester

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Anissa Nishioka/File

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At a packed town hall-style meeting Thursday, students and staff gathered for presentations and to ask questions about UC Berkeley’s planned data science major and minor program, which program organizers hope to make available next semester.

Interim Dean for Data Sciences and professor David Culler led the meeting and said program organizers were “going at light speed” toward finalizing the major and minor programs. He cautioned, however, that several steps remain before the program can be approved.

Culler added that organizers cannot be certain when the major and minor will be available to declare but are working to make it available in the spring.

Throughout the meeting, Culler and other speakers emphasized the broad and interdisciplinary scope of the data science program. After students within the major have completed foundational courses in data science, mathematics and computing, they would be able to choose from a diverse selection of concentrations in subjects, including ecology and environment, computational imaging and humanities and data arts.

In addition to computer science, statistics and mathematics, other departments such as history and legal studies had professors who were noted to have influenced the direction of the program.

“The thing that’s really unusual is the breadth of faculty engagement making parts of this,” Culler said after the meeting.

During the meeting, a panel of students spoke about the role that students have played in developing the program. Students act as teachers and teacher assistants in data science courses, and they lead an array of individual programs including tutoring services, community service organizations and research groups.

Alexander Ivanoff, campus senior and manager of a data science student team, said students have also helped shape the program by figuring out what others on campus want and how to provide for their needs and interests.

“Students started doing that research on the ground, finding what made all these kids around campus interested in (data science),” Ivanoff said.We realized there’s so much momentum from the student side that we needed to make some concrete deliverables.”

Still, Ivanoff said he worries about the rapid growth of the program and warned that without adequate resources, the data science major may eventually have to implement limits, such as GPA cutoffs, that are found in other popular impacted majors, including computer science.

Presenters said the data science program is designed to be “double major-philic” and to make transitioning to a data science major accessible. In addition, organizers said they are working to make curriculum in existing classes more relevant to studies in data science — they are also developing new courses and hiring additional faculty.

Culler stressed the “intuitive” design of the program and emphasized its ability to place technical aspects of data science in a relevant, societal context.

“This major seeks to teach how to think and how to ask questions,” Culler said during the meeting. “Not just to turn the crank.”

Contact Sam Levin at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.