Students learn data science

The new Data Science program, launched this semester, features stackable certificates, requiring a minority of the credits needed to earn a bachelor's degree.

November 27, 2017
Writer: Emma Drake

Three BYU-Idaho faculty members, all from different departments, have spearheaded a yearlong process to create a new degree program. The new Data Science program, launched this semester, features stackable certificates, requiring a minority of the credits needed to earn a bachelor's degree. Mathematics Department faculty member J. Hathaway, Computer Information Technology Department faculty member Brent Morring, and Computer Science & Electrical Engineering Department faculty member Scott Burton developed the new Data Science degree that fulfills the university's goal of helping students successfully navigate through college. 

In his inaugural address, President Henry J. Eyring announced the development of several degrees that allow students to graduate in a timely manner without sacrificing the chance to obtain experience from other fields or internships. Specifically, he referenced the Data Science degree as an example.

"Importantly, the relatively few required courses of this major allow freshman students to sample curiosity-stimulating introductory courses from multiple majors before making a long-term commitment. Similarly valuable is the flexibility to change majors without incurring a graduation delay," Eyring said. "It also engages students early in the practical elements of a discipline, with the goal of stimulating curiosity and boosting confidence."

Data science is the ability to look at data and mold it into understandable content to solve client-specific problems. 

"It combines core statistical knowledge with programming skills and you want to then couple that with some sort of industry specific domain knowledge," Morring said. "Another group component is the communication aspect: having a person acquire the skills and to be able to communicate effectively from data. This allows them to be the go-to between management and the technical numbers of an organization."

The new Data Science degree includes courses from the areas of Statistics, Computer Science and Information Technology, Communication, and Business. The overlap of courses from multiple departments made it possible to create the degree in a timely manner. It allows students to easily switch into or out of the major since many courses overlap with other degrees. To complete the Data Science degree, only one new course needed to be created. 

"The new Data Wrangling and Visualization course helps students learn how to work with data sets that may not be 'clean' and well-formed, to produce visualizations that communicate meaning to stakeholders," Burton said. 

When they originally began the creation process Hathaway, Morring, and Burton meant to create only a bachelor's degree, but they quickly discovered that they could serve a wider range of students by creating more options. 

"It was pointed out to us that the school values nesting. So we started thinking about how we could make an associate's degree," Hathaway said. "As we reached out for help, more and more people began offering great advice. What started out with a plan to only create a bachelor's degree, became a plan to create an associates, a minor, and a certificate." 

This design will allow students who leave BYU-Idaho before receiving a four-year degree to earn valuable credentials they can market in the workplace. Morring says that creating more than a bachelor's degree will help many more students.

"We felt that it would really bless a lot of students," Morring said. "It helps increase a student's marketability. We see this degree potentially helping many across campus."

Due to the high demand of data scientists, students who graduate from the program can expect to have access to a wide variety of options for work after graduation. 

"They can analyze data for almost any field of work," Hathaway said. "It is almost overwhelming the number of data scientists that are needed in the work force. Any organization that has more than 10 employees and has any connection to data will hire someone with a Data Science degree." 

Aletha Pyeatt, who switched her major to Data Science this semester, says that the degree will provide her with the necessary skills to become a business consultant.  

"I decided to switch to the Data Science major because the career outlook looked much more promising than my current major," Pyeatt said. "I hope to gain a substantial skill set that I can take into the workforce with confidence."