Statistics major will premiere in fall

The University Faculty of Arts & Sciences voted unanimously Thursday to approve an undergraduate statistics major that will debut next fall.

The new major — the fourth Yale has created since 1999 — expands what has hitherto been a concentration in the Applied Mathematics major into its own track, professors who will teach within the major said. The course will rely on current offerings and one new senior project seminar in statistics. Members of the class of 2010 who have completed the major’s required coursework in probability, statistics and data analysis will be permitted to graduate as statistics majors — though few are likely to do so.

“It was necessary to separate statistics from the applied math major here at Yale because, compared with mathematicians, statisticians work more closely with data and real world problems,” explained Lisha Chen, an assistant professor of statistics who authored the department’s report to the University’s Committee on Majors. “Statistics has very broad application.”

The statistics major will consist of 12 credits: three prerequisites, two electives and seven required courses, including a senior project. The bachelor of arts prerequisites — multivariable calculus, linear algebra and computer science — overlap with applied mathematics, but Joseph Chang, the department’s chair, said in an e-mail that overlap with the applied mathematics major ends there. While applied mathematics covers a “diverse collection” of subject matter, Chang said, statistics will target students “particularly interested in delving into probability, statistical inference, and data analysis.”

Enrollment in similar programs at peer schools is small. Chang said Columbia University graduates roughly ten statistics majors annually, Harvard between three and six. The department estimates that enrollment at Yale will be similar, Chang said, but has no firm number because it does not know the extent of student interest in the major.

The statistics department will require students to take courses currently offered to fulfill major requirements, Chang said. Only the senior project will debut next fall as a new course in the statistics major. Part of that is a result of departmental planning; Chang said the department has worked over the “past few years” to build the platform of courses that Chang called a “good major.”

The major is set for launch at a time when academic programs across the University are cutting back, but Chang said the statistics major will not be affected.

“Now, with our current faculty size and a solid collection of courses being offered every year, we feel that we have reached a critical mass of faculty and courses that can support a good major,” Chang said.

Faculty had mulled a major proposal “for many years,” but never carried the idea through, Chang said. As a final step, faculty introduced courses over the past year that mix statistics with social science, a move assistant statistics professor Lisha Chen said was aimed at enhancing the interdisciplinary nature of the major.

“Nowadays, statistics has more applications,” said Chen, who was the primary author on the report submitted by the statistics department to the University’s Committee on Majors. “It’s closely related to many other disciplines that are not necessarily math.”

Chen said she believes applied mathematics majors often feel their prerequisite work is not necessary and unrelated to their further studies.

But of the five students interviewed who are currently in an advanced statistics course, not one wanted to major in the subject.

Another student, applied mathematics major Eric Klein ’09, said he does not know anyone who wants to major in statistics, and said he has seen value in his prerequisite coursework.

“I don’t feel like anything I’ve learned has been unuseful,” he said, adding that introductory courses gave him a mathematical background for later, more advanced study.

Two recent graduates of Yale College said they would have majored in statistics had the option been available. Ken Hui ’08, who majored in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and applied mathematics, said statistics helped him interpret data sets in research papers. Hui said he would have chosen statistics as a double major, had the option been available when he was an undergraduate.

Professor Andrew Barron will serve as the major’s first director of undergraduate studies. A bachelor of science degree in statistics requires one additional course of the student’s choosing in statistics and mathematics.

Comments

  • Max Goer

    I am an applied math major and this certainly sounds very interesting. Depending on the exact requirements this may be a popular for people, like me, who econ and applied math double majors, as some of the requirements that are not too relevant, like discrete math, may be dropped.