08:21 AM

UHD to Offer Texas' First Undergraduate Data Science Degree


By Mike Emery


The demand for data science professionals is at an all-time high. Each year, more than two million job openings for data experts are posted in the United States alone. According to a recent IBM study, that number is projected to increase to nearly three million by 2020.

This fall, the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) will introduce its Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Data Science to help prepare students for this industry boom. This degree is the first of its kind in Texas and will deliver interdisciplinary coursework focused on the foundations of data science. It will be based in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics in the College of Sciences & Technology.

Data science is the practice of developing productive information from quantities of intricate data. Career opportunities in data science are available within a variety of industries including defense, education, energy, finance, medical, social sciences, robotics and many others.

This multi-faceted discipline requires knowledge of mathematics, statistics, computer programming and ethical decision making. All of these subjects, augmented by project based curriculum and many student presentations, will be incorporated in this degree, said Dr. Ryan Pepper, chair of the Department of Mathematics & Statistics.

"Throughout this degree plan, students will be immersed in the data science pipeline," Pepper said. "This pipeline includes: identifying and mathematically modeling problems; gathering, sorting and analyzing data relevant to those problems; visualizing and presenting the results of this analysis; and finally, making mathematically valid and ethically sound decisions based upon the findings. The industry is seeking people who are skilled in the many different areas that are present in data science, and not just traditionally trained mathematicians or statisticians or computer programmers - they are interested in data scientists."

The aforementioned IBM study, "The Quant Crunch: How the Demand for Data Science Skills is Disrupting the Job Market," supports the need for more data science education to satisfy industry demands for qualified data scientists.

"Education or experience requirements are particularly high for many emerging data science and analytics roles, such as Data Scientists and Data Engineers," IBM reported. "Accelerated development of new learning pathways which are specifically targeted at preparing candidates for these roles are needed."

The curriculum will blend existing statistics, mathematics and computer science courses with new data science courses. The most common programming languages used in data science - Python, R and SQL - will be layered through many courses of the degree, as will other popular data science software tools such as Excel and Tableau. For many of the new courses, students will run a data science project from start to finish.

Coursework for UHD's Data Science Program follows closely to that outlined by a recent report from the Park City Math Institute titled, "Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Programs in Data Science." That report, sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Study, detailed the need for more degree programs focused on data science and the types of courses that would facility industry needs.

In addition to that report, Pepper also spoke with representatives from local corporations to gain insight on the data skills required for various industries.

"I corresponded with representatives from local companies such as Schlumberger and Noble Energy. When I presented the curriculum, they responded positively, and expressed that their respective data scientists engaged in many of the activities outlined in these classes," Pepper said.

The new bachelor's program was recently approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and received support from the University of Houston System Board of Regents during its May 18 meeting.

UHD's B.S. in Data Science complements its Master of Science in Data Analytics, which was introduced in 2015. According to College of Sciences and Technology Dean Akif Uzman, the pairing of these degrees will provide UHD students with a distinct advantage when seeking careers in data science/data analytics.

"We are entering a new age in career preparation, when new academic fields are arising from more traditional disciplines to meet the challenges of the information age in many areas of our economy," Uzman said. "Our degree programs in data science and data analytics will provide them a broad range of quantitative and critical thinking skills that can be used in a wide range of careers, ranging from business, education, health sciences, public policy, as well as research in the sciences, technology, and engineering."