Data Analytics Programs Take Off

Colleges are working to meet demand for big data analysis with burgeoning degree and non-degree programs.

March 15, 2017
 
Providence College
Seniors at Providence College participate in a week-long bootcamp about data analytics in August 2016.

To keep up with the explosion of big data across all industries, college and universities have debuted dozens of data analytics programs during the past few years. 

These programs -- ranging from week-long, immersive training camps to bachelor's and master’s degrees -- teach students how to find patterns, predictions, stories and meaning in massive, messy sets of data, according to Matthew Neal, a professor of mathematics and data analytics at Denison University. 

Denison launched an undergraduate data analytics major last fall, and a pilot course in introductory data analytics is underway this spring. Neal is teaching about half of the 80 students enrolled in the course, which is significant for Denison, a small liberal arts college in Ohio with about 2,000 students. 

The program has "really taken off more than we thought it would,” said Jessen Havill, a professor of computer science and director of the new data analytics program at Denison. About 50 freshmen and sophomores have declared data analytics as their major, he said, making it comparable to the size of the established computer science program and even more popular than the mathematics program. 

Denison planned the program for about two years before it launched, Havill said. At the time, in 2014, few data analytics degree programs existed, so Denison created its from scratch. Officials at several other colleges said the same thing -- they had few models so they built their own.

This fall, the University of Texas at Dallas is rolling out a master’s program in social data analytics, which will focus on incorporating data from fields like geography, sociology, criminology and political science, said Simon Fass, director of the new master’s program. Students will learn how to apply statistics, computer programming and data visualization skills to the social sciences. 

Fass said that although UT Dallas didn’t imitate existing programs outright, there is a lot of natural overlap in what colleges are including in their data analytics curricula. For example, data analytics is built on principles drawn from statistics, computer science and mathematics. Many programs also focus on data mining and data visualization as well as soft skills, like the importance of communicating what the data reveals. 

Because data analytics is interdisciplinary and can be applied in most sectors (public, private, nonprofit), many programs encourage students to pursue a specialization. At Denison, some of the most popular disciplines are economics, political science, biology and psychology, Havill said. 

That interdisciplinary element allows students to understand the importance of the data they are working with and the significance of the results they find.

“I hope a lot of programs take [that] into account,” Havill said, so "that we’re not just pushing out ... applied mathematicians who don’t understand the importance of the context.”

Havill said he thinks that's possible in a few years as data analytics programs are more common. There are groups, such as the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, working to create a streamlined, uniform approach to teaching data analytics across colleges, he added. 

Jobs for Graduates

At Ohio State University, where one of the first undergraduate programs was introduced about three years ago, the first class of data analytics majors is preparing to graduate in May.

Of those graduating, one has been offered a job at General Motors to analyze information about driverless cars and vehicles with automated navigation systems -- both of which collect massive amounts of data, according to Christopher Hans, a statistics professor at Ohio State and co-director of its data analytics program. Another student will join the data analytics team at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms. 

A number of Ohio State’s 200 data analytics majors have internships this summer working at a wide ranges of organizations, including Ford Motor Company and Zillow, an online real estate company, Hans said. 

As one of the first research universities to launch a bachelor's degree program in data analytics, Hans said he and his co-director, Srinivasan Parthasarathy, have heard from several colleges interested in learning more about Ohio State's program. More colleges want to launch programs because they recognize the enormous gap between the supply and demand of data analytics skills, Parthasarathy said. 

During the past 10 years, there's been explosive growth in technology and the amount of data produced in virtually every field. Companies have the means to generate and collect huge amounts of data, Parthasarathy said, but they lack the skills to make sense of it. 

“Industries would like to take the next step and glean the insights [from that data] so they can move ahead in their respective fields,” he said. 

Data analytic programs are attracting academic stars. At Ohio State, for example, students drawn to data analytics are among the brightest and most competitive. The average ACT score for learners entering the major is a 33, making data analytics one of the three highest-caliber programs at the university. 

“Students are particularly excited about the curriculum,” Parthasarathy said. “They are a delightful group -- very inquisitive, on the ball.” 

More Data Analytic Programs

Other burgeoning data analytics programs include the University of Michigan's Michigan Institute for Data Science, the University of California, Irvine, Data Science Initiative and the College of Charleston's data science program.

Some institutions are focusing on the business side of data analytics, including Emory University and Suffolk University, which offer master's programs.

Meanwhile, some colleges are launching alternative non-degree programs, such as the data analytics bootcamp at Providence College. Providence, which offered the bootcamp for the first time last August, condenses the basics of data analytics into a week-long training program for about 25 seniors, said Adam Villa, an associate professor of computer science at Providence who led the bootcamp. 

Villa said it was a lot of information to cram into a week, but that students seemed engaged in the material and had positive things to say about the bootcamp. At the end of the week, they were given a large set of data, and tasked with analyzing it and presenting their findings to a panel of judges from private-sector companies. The students received lots of positive feedback on their presentations, Villa said.

Because of the bootcamp's success, Providence is considering adding an introductory applied data analytics course this fall, which Villa would teach. 

"We just have access to so much information at our fingertips," he said. "I think it’s an important area of study students should be exposed to regardless of whether they’re in business or in the liberal arts.”

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