UC Berkeley on verge of establishing data science major

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UC Berkeley is on the verge of establishing a major in data science through the College of Letters and Science, or L&S, pending approval by the Academic Senate.

The aim of the major will be to teach students how to draw conclusions from data using statistical inference, data management strategies and domain knowledge, in both scientific and practical contexts, according to the data science website.

The data science major was proposed after the success of the Data 8, or Foundations of Data Science, course, which is the fastest-growing course in UC Berkeley history. Data 8X, which currently has about 37,000 students from 181 countries enrolled, is the online equivalent of Data 8.

The effort to make data science an official major at UC Berkeley has been a multiyear process, involving students and faculty members such as Cathryn Carson, the faculty lead for the data science education program.

“I am part of a team of faculty and students across campus whose goal for four years has been to get to that moment when the major will be available for students,” Carson said.

Despite her heavy involvement in the subject, data science is not Carson’s career focus — in fact, she is a professor in the department of history. Carson was trained as a physicist but later became a historian, so she loves seeing students travel across disciplines.

Carson said she finds data science attractive because of the way it brings together the skills of math and computing with those of other fields, as data science is currently being used in many different domains. In her mind, Carson said, a data science major would prepare students for a number of career paths in different fields post-graduation. The current proposal for the major includes 27 different domains that students can choose from, including social inequality and computational biology.

The sentiment that data science can transcend disciplines and serve anyone from any field was also expressed by David Wagner, one of the Data 8X professors.

“I love that we can teach data science to everyone who is interested, regardless of their background, with no prerequisites,” Wagner said in an email.

The proposal for the data science major has been approved by the L&S Executive Committee and was moved forward by Vice Provost Paul Alivisatos to full Academic Senate review, according to Academic Senate chair Lisa Alvarez-Cohen. She added that most of the courses in the program are already being offered to students and that the remaining classes will be offered in the upcoming year.

Carson said the faculty working on this project “hope and expect” that the data science major will be available to students in fall 2018.

She also noted that this process only establishes a data science major through L&S. Creating a data science major affiliated with the College of Engineering or a data science minor through L&S would require a separate process.

Contact Luke Kopetsky at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @LukeKopetsky.