Editor’s Note: This article on a new interdisciplinary master’s degree, including two Neag School professors Betsy McCoach and Kylie Anglin, was originally featured in UConn Today.
Meeting the growing demand for data scientists to tackle the most complex problems in society.
From online streaming to health care systems, from retailers to researchers, the demand for knowledgeable and skilled data scientists has never been greater.
UConn has stepped up to meet the need with the launch of a new multidisciplinary Master’s in Data Science program and an inaugural full-time cohort of 20 students starting in the upcoming Fall 2022 semester.
“The demand has been nothing short of extraordinary,” says Peter Diplock, UConn’s associate vice-provost for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and co-director of the master’s program.
Based on the Storrs campus, the 11-month and 30-credit program draws from faculty expertise in five of UConn’s schools and colleges: the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; the School of Business; the School of Engineering; the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; and the Neag School of Education.
Beyond the 18 credit multidisciplinary core curriculum – which includes a strong focus on ethics as well as design, programming, machine learning, and data analysis – students can choose from 12 different areas of concentration within the program that range from bioinformatics to cybersecurity to social and behavioral analytics.
“Although the core set of knowledge for students who are interested in applying data science to something like marketing are the same as someone who would apply it to health informatics, the way in which it’s applied, the way you get the data, the way you deal with the data, the way you interpret the data once it’s collected, is going to be different for somebody who’s doing marketing than somebody who’s doing health informatics,” explains Kent Holsinger, UConn’s vice provost for graduate education, dean of The Graduate School, and co-director of the master’s program.
“The interest has been extraordinary, and the diversity of students interested has been affirming.”
— Associate Vice Provost Peter Diplock
“We wanted to make sure that students had a good, solid foundation in the fundamentals of data science,” Holsinger says, “with the opportunity to specialize in areas that were of particular interest to them and for pursuing careers.”
All students in the new master’s program will complete a team-based capstone project, where they’ll work to solve a real-world problem and develop practical skills through an experiential learning opportunity.
“We’re cultivating opportunities to work with employers in the state of Connecticut, and in the region and beyond, on projects – messy, sticky problems that are characteristic of the kind of projects employers face daily,” Diplock says. “These projects are critically important for students to be able to develop key competencies of practice related to data integrity and quality, surfacing assumptions, iterative model building, and communicating insights and impacts.”
While the initial cohort will partake in an in-person program, the University plans to launch a parallel and fully online program in Fall 2023, designed for people who are working but interesting in enhancing their skills or pivoting in their career.
“The interest has been extraordinary, and the diversity of students interested has also been affirming,” says Diplock. “When we envisioned this program, we thought about a student who has an undergraduate degree in economics, or in education, or in business, or in fine arts, or in history, or physics or computer science. When I say it’s been affirming, it’s because we’re seen exactly that, where the students who are attracted this program come from diverse prior academic backgrounds.”
Planning for the new program began four years ago, when Diplock – who, in his role with the University, works to take program ideas, research them, shape them, and bring them to life – received two proposals from two different department heads about launching new programs in data science. He engaged a diverse faculty team to explore the concept, to connect with industry, and to really learn what knowledge skills and abilities employers needed from data science graduates.
“It was at a time when there was a lot around data analytics, but data science was really just emerging as a sort of distinct field,” he explains, “and as I came to understand the space better, I became more convinced that it was truly a multidisciplinary space. In our program, the extent to which we have embraced and intentionally sought out a multidisciplinary approach is unique.”
As is the program’s focus on ethics – while all students in the program must complete a dedicated two-credit course in data ethics, ethical concepts have been intentionally woven throughout all elements of the curriculum.
“It’s really vital when people are dealing with data, especially these enormous datasets that are now available and widely used, that they be very careful in thinking about how the data were collected, what biases may have been incorporated into collecting the data itself, and then what biases could arise from employing different algorithms,” says Holsinger.
“Models will by their nature be imprecise,” Diplock says, “and we owe it to people to make sure that our students have a deep understanding of what the ethical implications are of the models that they’re building and to be able to take those conversations head-on, as opposed to sidestepping.”
For more information about UConn’s new Master’s (MS) in Data Science program, visit masters.datascience.uconn.edu.