Data Science Program’s Strong Start Creates New Opportunities

lindsey ulribe

Data Science Program’s Strong Start Creates New Opportunities

April 7, 2021

The University of Oregon’s new undergraduate data science program will close out its first year with nearly 50 majors, nearly twice as many as expected.

The strong numbers bode extremely well for the future, as the UO continues to align strong expertise across multiple fields to create new opportunities for students in the emerging field, said Joe Sventek, data science program director and professor of computer and information science.

“This first year in data science demonstrates that we’re making excellent progress, opening new doors of opportunity for UO students with our unique, interdisciplinary approach to data science,” said Sventek.

The undergraduate program is part of the broader Data Science Initiative, which also is progressing toward a graduate program planned for 2022, and a joint biomedical data science center with OHSU and the Knight Campus, in addition to providing support for the UO’s efforts in COVID-19 testing.

The new major is also an example of success from a collective effort to align talent and expertise to expand academic and research opportunities across campus and the state. In addition to data science, interdisciplinary academic initiatives center on the environment, innovation, diversity, and sports and wellness.

Work in data science places the UO among a growing tide of elite institutions using big data to change the way we understand the world, said Bill Cresko, executive director of the Data Science Initiative and professor of biology. The new undergraduate program, Cresko said, builds on the UO’s traditional strengths to train students across traditional academic disciplines, breeding a wholistic mindset to maximize positive impact on society.

“Our unique strengths in liberal arts enables us to produce data scientists who consider not only what can we do with data – but what should we do,” said Cresko. “That additional perspective, along with a technical skill set will serve our graduates well throughout their careers.”

The data science program’s introductory course, DSCI 101, has been particularly attractive, Sventek said. In fact, spots in the class were in such high demand that the program opened it up to twice as many students as expected, a quick pivot made possible by remote learning, he said.

The program is also staffing up on the faculty side. Biology professor Lauren Ponisio is one of several recent hires made in support of the growth of data science at UO. Ponisio co-taught DSCI 101 with Dave Wilkins, a career instructor in computer and information science.

“One factor that attracted me to the UO was that the data science program is very interdisciplinary,” Ponisio said. “We’re collaborating with colleagues across a wide variety of fields to train tomorrow’s leaders to analyze data to make decisions earlier, faster and better.”

The program is designed to provide students a strong understanding of how to extract data using quantitative methods such as math, statistics, and machine learning, and how to visually communicate those results in ways that are relevant to an area of emphasis. Currently, students can select an emphasis from biology, geography, linguistics, marketing or accounting. Additional offerings in economics, earth sciences, physics, and sociology are on tap for fall.