New College data science major: From foundations to insight to impact

UChicago Board of Trustees’ gift launches new $200 million commitment to undergraduate financial aid and educational access

Starting in 2021-22, undergrads can focus studies on ’rapidly evolving’ field

Data science is more than a hot tech buzzword or a fashionable career; in the century to come, it will be an essential toolset in almost any field.

Tomorrow’s data scientists will need to combine a deep understanding of the field’s theoretical and mathematical foundations, computational techniques and how to work across organizations and disciplines.

Through the new undergraduate major in data science available in the 2021-22 academic year, University of Chicago College students will learn how to analyze data and apply it to critical real-world problems in medicine, public policy, the social and physical sciences, and many other domains. Students can select data science as their primary program of study, or combine the interdisciplinary field with a second major.

The new major is part of the University of Chicago Data Science Initiative, a coordinated, campus-wide plan to expand education, research, and outreach in this fast-growing field.

"It all starts with the University of Chicago vision for data science as an emerging new discipline, which will be reflected in the educational experience," said Michael J. Franklin, Liew Family Chairman of Computer Science and senior advisor to the Provost for computing and data science. "We are expanding upon the conventional view of data science-a combination of statistics, computer science and domain expertise-to build out the foundations of the field, consider its ethical and societal implications and communicate its discoveries to make the most powerful and positive real-world impact."

Building upon the data science minor and the "Introduction to Data Science" sequence taught by Franklin and Dan Nicolae, professor and chair in the Department of Statistics and the College, the major will include new courses and emphasize research and application. Through the new Data Science Clinic, students will capstone their studies by working with government, non-profit and industry partners on projects using data science approaches in real world situations with immediate, substantial impact.

"The courses will take students through the whole data science lifecycle, with all the concepts that they need to know: data collection, data engineering, programming, statistical inference, machine learning, databases, and issues around ethics, privacy and algorithmic transparency," Nicolae said. "But for data science, experiential learning is fundamental. Students will partner with organizations on and beyond campus to advance research, industry projects and social impact through what they have learned, transcending the conventional classroom experience."

"The College’s new data science major offers students a remarkable new interdisciplinary learning opportunity," said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. "The Core introduces students to a world of general knowledge useful for the active, but highly thoughtful practice of modern citizenship, while our brilliant majors enable students to gain active experience in the excitement of fundamental, pathbreaking research.áI am delighted that data science will now join the ranks of our majors in the College, introducing students to the rigor and excitement of the higher learning." Ashley Hitchings never thought she’d be interested in data science. When she arrived at the University of Chicago, she was passionate about investigative journalism and behavioral economics, with a focus on narratives over number-crunching. But the "Introduction to Data Science" sequence changed her view.

"I was interested in the more qualitative side, sifting through really large sums of information to try to tease out an untold narrative or a hidden story," said Hitchings, a rising third-year in the College and the daughter of two engineers. "I had always viewed data science as something very much oriented toward people passionate about STEM, but the data science sequence really framed it as a tool that anyone in any discipline could employ, to tell stories using data and uncover insights in a more quantitative and rigorous way."

The courses provided Hitchings with technical skills in programming, data analytics, statistical prediction and visualization, and allowed her to exercise that new toolset on real-world problems. At the end of the sequence, she analyzed the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations across different socioeconomic groups, and whether the Chicago neighborhoods suffering most from the virus received equitable access. Now she’s using her data science knowledge in a summer internship analyzing health care technology investment opportunities.

"Even in roles that aren’t data science jobs, per se, I had the skill set and I was able to take on added responsibilities," Hitchings said. "No matter where I go after graduation, I can help make sense of chaos in whatever kind of environment I’m working in."

Since it was introduced in 2019, the data science minor has drawn interest from UChicago students across disciplines. Students from 11 different majors, including all four collegiate divisions, have chosen a data science minor. David Biron, director of undergraduate studies for data science, anticipates that many will choose to double major in data science and another field.

"We designed the major specifically to enable students who want to combine data science with another B.A.," Biron said. "We expect this option to be attractive to a fair number of students from every major at UChicago, including the humanities, social sciences and biological sciences."

Marti Gendel, a rising fourth-year, has used data science to support her major in biology. Since joining the Gene Hackers-a student group interested in synthetic biology and genomics-she has developed an interest in coding, modeling and quantitative methods. Her experience in "Introduction to Data Science" not only showed her how to use these tools in her research, but also how to effectively evaluate how other scientists deploy data science, AI and other approaches.

"One of the challenges in biology is understanding how to read primary literature, reviewing articles and understanding what exactly is the data that’s being presented," Gendel said. "Now, I have the background to better comprehend how data is collected, analyzed and interpreted in any given scientific article."

Rising third-year Victoria Kielb has found surprising applications of data science through her work with the Robin Hood Foundation, the Chicago History Museum, and Facebook. In these opportunities, Kielb utilized her data science toolkit to analyze philanthropic dollars raised for a multi-million dollar relief fund; evaluate how museum members of different ages respond to virtual programming; and generate market insights for a product in its development phase.

"It made me realize how powerful data science is in drawing meaningful conclusions and promoting data-driven decision-making," Kielb said. "It’s really inspiring that I can take part in a field that’s rapidly evolving."

A new vision for data science

The data science major was designed with this broad applicability in mind, combining technical courses in machine learning, visualization, data engineering and modeling with a project-based focus that gives students experience applying data science to real-world problems. The centerpiece will be the new Data Science Clinic, a capstone, two-quarter sequence that places students on teams with public interest organizations, government agencies, industrial partners, and researchers.

"The Data Science Clinic will provide an understanding of the life cycle of a real-world data science project, from inception and gathering, to modeling and iteration to engineering and implementation," said David Uminsky, executive director of the UChicago Data Science Initiative. "UChicago students will have a wide variety of opportunities to engage projects across different sectors, disciplines and domains, from problems drawn from environmental and human rights groups to AI-driven finance and industry to cutting-edge research problems from the university, our national labs and beyond.

"This hands-on, authentic learning experience offers the real possibility for the field to grow in a manner that actually reflects the population it purports to engage, with diverse scientists asking novel questions from a wide range of viewpoints."

Reflecting the holistic vision for data science at UChicago, data science majors will also take courses in "Ethics, Fairness, Responsibility, and Privacy in Data Science" and the "Societal Impacts of Data," exploring the intensifying issues surrounding the use of "big data" and analytics in medicine, policy, business and other fields. Other new courses in development will cover misinterpretation of data, the economic value of data and the mathematical foundations of machine learning and data science.

Students will be able to choose from multiple tracks within the data science major, including a theoretical track, a computational track and a general track balanced between the two. All paths prepare students with the toolset they need to apply these skills in academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and government.

"The urgency with which businesses need strong data science talent is rapidly increasing," said Kjersten Moody, AB’98 and chief data officer at Prudential Financial. "I’m confident the University of Chicago data science major, with the innovative clinic model, will produce well-rounded graduates who will thrive in any industry.

"The combination of world-class liberal arts education, sophisticated theoretical examination, and exploration of relevant, real-world problems as integral to the major is invaluable for graduates to establish a rewarding career. This is what makes the University of Chicago program uniquely fit to prepare students for their future."

--This story was first published by the Department of Computer Science.

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