Courtesy of Michael Marsland

Yale will officially offer a data science and statistics major, after a Thursday vote at the Yale College faculty meeting set the University on track to become one of the first institutions in the country to host a full-scale department with “data science” in its title.

The Department of Statistics will evolve into the Department of Statistics and Data Science, known as DS2, according to a summary presented to the Yale administration. The faculty of the Statistics Department voted unanimously in fall 2015 to broaden its mission to include the emerging field of data science, and the department’s proposal for an undergraduate major was approved and modified by the Yale College Dean’s Office Committee on Majors this year. The department will conduct searches for joint and fully appointed faculty members who will begin teaching classes in the new major this fall.

“Data science expands on statistics to encompass the entire life cycle of data, from its specification, gathering and cleaning, through its management and analysis, to its use in making decisions and setting policy,” the official description of the new major reads. “It is a natural outgrowth of statistics that incorporates advances in machine learning, data mining and high-performance computing along with domain expertise in the social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, management, medicine and digital humanities.”

The Bachelor of Arts degree requires 11 course credits and aims to acquaint students with the fundamental techniques in the field, while the Bachelor of Science requires 14 course credits and prepares students to pursue research efforts or graduate school in data science. According to the major’s description, multivariable calculus is a prerequisite, and several courses for nonmajors will be offered. There is also a senior requirement, which can be fulfilled by taking a capstone course or completing an individual research project, similar to the applied math major.

Harrison Zhou, who is the current chair of the Statistics Department and will become the chair of the Data Science and Statistics Department in fall 2017,  said Yale is committing “significant resources” to the new major, which he will help allocate toward teaching and research expansion.

The DS2 major course offerings span topics including core probability and statistics, computational skills, mathematical foundations and theory, efficient computation and big data, data science in context and methods in application areas.

“The major will allow [students] to study data science in a particularly broad way, beginning with questions of how data are collected and classified, continuing through questions of how data are analyzed, and extending to questions of how data are represented, understood and used to guide behavior and set policy,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said. “Yale has strength in these topics throughout its FAS departments, as well as in its professional schools, which renders us uniquely poised to train a new generation of data scientists with broad-reaching perspective and skills.”

Daniel Spielman ’92, a computer science professor and the director of undergraduate studies for the Applied Math Department who is overseeing logistics for the creation of the new major, said he would estimate having about 20 graduating seniors in the first year of DS2. He added that there is substantial student interest in the major, adding that many of the applied math majors to which he showed the data science proposal expressed excitement about it.

Data science is an emerging discipline that has the support of both students and faculty, Spielman said. He added that the major has many potential applications, ranging in fields from social sciences to health policy to forestry. The new major will hire up to eight faculty members either as full DS2 professors or professors with joint appointments in related fields, he said.

Alan Gerber ’86, political science professor and dean of social sciences, said the DS2 major is both intellectual and practical. The development of computational power and advances in applied math over the last few decades have given academics more tools to analyze data, Gerber said, which requires the expansion of the statistics major. He added that the fundamental questions the major asks about statistics and data analysis can contribute to students’ understanding of the world they live in.

“There are lots of deep questions, and now we have all of the advanced tools that have been developed to exploit some of the technological breakthroughs in the areas of computation,” Gerber said. “This forms this exciting intellectual synergy, and the major is a way of introducing students to fundamental issues that are associated with that synergy.”

The major meets growing student demand, both Gerber and Spielman said. Kira Tebbe ’17, an applied math major, said data science is not only one of the most in-demand skills, but can also be applied to all sectors and any workplace that collects or uses data.

“Yale creating a major specifically for data science is great because it will allow students to cultivate skills and knowledge that they can apply wherever they want, including nonprofits, business, government and media,” Tebbe said. “I hope to see courses that expose students to a variety of programming tools and languages, which would allow them to be able to adapt to any project demands.”

Spielman said he hopes that the success of foundational courses in the DS2 major will lead other departments to create courses under the assumption that more students will be well-versed in data science. He added that one of the department’s major goals is to prepare students to eventually make policy decisions based on “facts and intelligent analyses of them,” a campuswide goal included in a November statement from University President Peter Salovey on University priorities and academic investments.

Zhou also pointed out that the new major ties in with these University-wide goals, adding that Salovey’s statement described how a great institution must engage in the great debates of its era and encourage its students to participate.

“The DS2 major will help accomplish this mission,” Zhou said. “It will train our students to debate in a rigorous way.”