Data science combines the power of mathematics, computer science, and statistics to help researchers analyze and process data and find solutions to a variety of interdisciplinary problems. The discoveries within this growing field continue to extract valuable insight from big data, helping to unveil new scientific and business opportunities. Scott Frees, Ph.D., Program Director, M.S. Computer Science Program Director, M.S. Data Science, Professor of Computer Science, School of Theoretical and Applied Science, Ramapo College of New Jersey, has been teaching computer science since 2006 and has conducted research within bioinformatics and computational genomics.
At the end of 2017, Ramapo College began exploring the development of a data science degree program. “I wanted to get involved and brought my education and research background to help get the program off the ground,” shares Frees. “We formed a committee of faculty members from several different disciplines, led by Dr. Amanda Beecher, Program Director, M.S. Applied Mathematics and Associate Professor of Mathematics, School of Theoretical and Applied Science, to develop an undergraduate and master’s degree program in data science, which rolled out in 2019. We exceeded our enrollment numbers in our first year for the master’s program and the interest in data science continues to grow. Once we launched the bachelor’s degree program, we saw a number of existing Ramapo students transfer into data science and that trend continues today.”
Building a Data Science Program
Data analytics has become increasingly valuable to industries across the globe and can help organizations make more efficient, educated decisions about their businesses. “We’ve seen a group of students, including math, computer science, and business graduates, who have been out in the industry and are now returning to Ramapo to pursue a credentialed degree in data science,” says Frees. “Seeing how well received this program has been among students, we’ve created a plan to build in two new master’s programs that surround data science, one in computer science and one in applied mathematics. We’re excited to launch these two new programs in fall 2022 and continue to create a center for data, mathematical, and computational sciences. Ramapo has dedicated lab space for these programs, and with an interwoven curriculum and faculty members who are involved in all three disciplines, students can count on a comprehensive education.”
Ramapo College also offers a four-plus-one program where students can major as an undergraduate in computer science, data science, or math, and then take graduate courses their senior year to complete their master’s degree in data science within one extra year. “This program has been great for students, especially international students who are looking to stay here longer, earn a more advanced degree, and get out into the workforce as quickly as possible,” says Frees. “We’re even seeing freshmen coming in from high school who are signing up particularly for this degree program. And now, with the new programs in computer science and applied math, you can major in three different undergraduate majors and complete a fifth year in three different master’s programs.”
“The guidance and resources Edge has provided has been hugely beneficial,” shares Frees. “When you have a growing program like we do, expanding IT infrastructure, including the full-time maintenance and storage of data, is a lot for any organization to invest in. Receiving expert guidance on the most effective and affordable options that will work for our college has allowed us to allocate our time and resources in the most efficient manner possible.”
— Scott Frees, Ph.D.
Program Director, M.S. Computer Science Program Director, M.S. Data Science, Professor of Computer Science, School of Theoretical and Applied Science, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Fostering Data Science Literacy
With the need for data collection and analysis touching nearly every discipline, the growing demand for data science education is not surprising. “Our incoming students have always been interested in big data, machine learning, and technology,” says Frees. “Data science is interdisciplinary, whether you’re studying biology, psychology, or social work. Each one of these disciplines is working with data within their majors and I believe this is why the data science program has resonated with students across campus.”
As Ramapo continues to expand their data science program, Frees says they are looking at developmental opportunities for their faculty and master’s students. “We are currently exploring ways for our data science faculty members to help develop curriculums or learning modules that focus on how data science works within a particular discipline. For example, we would embed data science modules in the required courses for a psychology program. This group of faculty members and grad students would develop data science content specifically geared toward that discipline, and help the faculty deliver those lessons to build greater data science literacy across the institution.”
Overcoming IT Challenges
While developing a new program at an institution can bring exciting opportunities, the expansion can also require creative problem solving when challenges arise. “With the creation of this program, we had to find ways to pull in courses related to data science and make them part of the major so they can run effectively,” explains Frees. “From a curricular and administrative standpoint, we want to offer a large selection of electives for our students. This goal was a key driver toward adding computer science and applied math to the degree program. Now we have a larger pool of students taking our courses and this allows us to offer five, instead of two, electives per semester, for example.”
One of the biggest challenges Ramapo faced in developing the data science program was building necessary IT infrastructure. “Being a small, public liberal arts institution, we don’t have the budget for huge computing infrastructure or deep connections into cloud platforms,” says Frees. “Previously, we have been meeting IT needs on a course-by-course or instructor-by-instructor basis. When we started looking at putting a data science learning curriculum across different majors, we knew a unified platform for student access was critical. As students go to different courses throughout their undergraduate careers, we don’t want them relearning everything, but instead, are able to complete real work because the College has a platform available to meet their needs.”
Supporting Student Access and Connectivity
As Ramapo began looking at building computing infrastructure, accessing cloud resources made the most sense. “Using cloud services will allow us to scale up gradually and we can further identify what is being used in the classroom and in research,” explains Frees. “Our biggest challenge is managing student logins and meeting student quotas for computing power and data storage. Edge has helped us navigate that discussion and connected us with the right people who can aid in the ongoing process.” To help Ramapo with their connectivity goals, Edge began by helping establish a faster and more cost-efficient connection to Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC). Through VPC, the institution can launch Amazon Web Services (AWS) into a virtual network with the benefits of using the scalable infrastructure of AWS. “Using VPC has been a big boost and allowed us to start using the technology immediately across our classrooms.”
Through Edge, Ramapo has also started to establish connections to regional partners and larger institutions who have shared resources and computing power. “The guidance and resources Edge has provided has been hugely beneficial,” shares Frees. “When you have a growing program like we do, expanding IT infrastructure, including the full-time maintenance and storage of data, is a lot for any organization to invest in. Receiving expert guidance on the most effective and affordable options that will work for our college has allowed us to allocate our time and resources in the most efficient manner possible.”
Ramapo expects their data science program to continue to grow quickly, as student interest increases and the demand for this skillset grows within the workforce. “Computer science has been growing rapidly, where we’ve seen a 10- to 15-percent increase in enrollment each year,” says Frees. “We suspect all the disciplines connected to data science will see a similar growth. We’re predicting enrollment at the undergraduate level for data science will double within the next three academic years, and grow 10 percent at the graduate level. Our four-plus-one program is also drawing in more applications. Whether students want to be a data scientist, mathematician, or a computer scientist, we’re confident they will enter the job market with the advanced skills necessary to meet the demands of modern business and science.”
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