• Student Success

Rutgers adds two new degree programs

Taneesh AminTaneesh Amin dreams of working in sports analytics, conducting the type of savvy statistical research featured in the book and movie Moneyball on how the Oakland A’s built a winning baseball team.

The Rutgers University sophomore said it’s not only baseball teams that can benefit.

“The NBA is a perfect example,” Amin said. “Everyone has nice points, rebounds, and assists, but it’s the advanced statistics and analytics that really show you what contributes to winning.”

To reach his career goal, Amin says one area of study is particularly relevant: data science.

He is hardly alone. As computers become able to gather and analyze increasingly massive amounts of information, the role of data science is expanding across industries and workplaces, from medicine to sports to business.

And beginning this year, Rutgers University–New Brunswick students can choose it as a major. The Board of Governors last spring approved two new degree programs in data science—a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science—that will be offered through the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) in partnership with the School of Communication and Information, the School of Engineering, and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. The two new majors come after the launching of a minor and a certificate program in data science in 2022.

“Data science is a rapidly developing discipline, with new knowledge acquired and methods invented every day,” says Thu Nguyen, the SAS Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences who helped lead the development of the new programs. “Further, techniques from data science are widely applicable, and can support and contribute to areas across engineering, business, and the classical liberal arts and sciences.”

Recent graduate Akhilesh “Aki” Gurram, an aspiring physician and medical researcher, agrees. He studied biomedical engineering, but added a minor in data science, which had him doing everything from predicting Airbnb pricing in Manhattan to gaining experiencing using “R,” an open-source programming language.

“As a physician-scientist, the ability to develop insights from large data sets is something I am going to be using throughout my career,” says Gurram, a 2023 graduate.

Combining elements of computer science, mathematics, and statistics with domain specific knowledge, data scientists seek to develop knowledge and insights from vast amounts of information. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that the number of jobs in the field will grow 36 percent between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. That growth is driven by employers—business, government agencies, and non-profits—seeking to build success through data-informed strategies.

“The computational advances mean that data is used almost everywhere now,” says Steven Buyske, a professor of statistics who is co-director of the data science program at Rutgers. “There is the academic research side, but there is the very practical side of when your company of 500 employees needs to understand where its customers are coming from and what their need are.”

But Buyske and fellow co-director Tomasz Imieliński also say that’s just scratching the surface. They point to a range of potential applications in the social sciences and humanities.

In the SAS Signature Course, “Data 101,” Imieliński has undergraduates practice data science through the lens of issues like gun control, climate change, college costs and many other issues. Along the way, students learn the basics of probability, statistics, and computer programming.

They also learn about skepticism.

“One of the major messages of this class is to be a healthy skeptic, and to not be fooled by data,” says Imieliński, a professor of computer science. “I bring up numerous examples of media misinterpreting data to show students that if you don’t have the skills to understand the data and critique it, you will be manipulated.”

Since being introduced several years ago, the course, which is required for all students in the certificate, minor and majors, has drawn hundreds of students every year from across the academic spectrum.

Amin, the student interested in sports analytics, says taking "Data 101" last year taught him how to deepen his research. Besides developing sports-oriented projects, such as his NBA free-throw rate analysis, Amin examined voter turnout in the 2022 midterm elections in his hometown of Woodbridge. And he has been observing how data science can support broad public projects—such as COVID-19 vaccination programs or expanding broadband reception—by identifying populations in need.

“Out of all the technical fields, I see data science is the one where I can make the biggest change in the world,” Amin says. “It is showing what is happening to help everyday people, and what is happening to hurt everyday people.”

Nguyen, meanwhile, says the array of options in the Rutgers programs—from the certificate and minor to the two bachelor’s degree programs—were designed to meet the needs of students with varying goals, from those wanting to work in the tech industry to those who see it as complementing their major to others who are just curious about understanding and interpreting data.

Sulemaan Farooq“All of these options are needed, particularly in a multidisciplinary area like data science, so that various levels of expertise can be applied in different ways to many different domains,” Nguyen says.

Students are already seeing the demand for people with data science skills.

Senior Sulemaan Farooq, a computer science major, says his data science minor added a set of niche skills to his resume that have helped him land internships at companies such as Ford and Verizon.  

“There’s definitely a rapid demand for the skill set,” he said. “If I hadn’t taken the courses I have in data science, I don’t think I would have gotten the internships that I have today.”