Board learns of new major in data sciences

HERSHEY, Pa. -- In today’s information society, there is growing demand for data-savvy professionals in business, government and the nonprofit sector. Penn State is capitalizing on the big data movement by offering a new data sciences undergraduate major as part of an inter-college initiative with the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the College of Engineering, and the Department of Statistics in the Eberly College of Science.

The new data sciences major was discussed during the Penn State Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 26, and will go into effect in summer 2016. With the new processes enabled by LionPath -- Penn State’s new student information system -- students will be able to apply for the major as soon as they meet the entrance-to-major requirements.

Data science is an interdisciplinary field that analyzes and creates processes and systems to extract knowledge or insights from data in various forms, both structured and unstructured. Data science employs techniques and theories drawn from many fields within the broad areas of mathematics, statistics, information science and computer science. Data scientists use these analytical and technical skills to harness the power of big data to generate new knowledge and insights.

“As the big data revolution has taken hold, there has been an explosion in the number of career opportunities for data scientists,” said Andrew Sears, dean of the College of IST. “The intercollege data sciences major at Penn State will educate students on the fundamentals of data sciences, with a focus on developing the knowledge and skills needed to address an expanding range of complex data-driven problems in industry, government and academia.”

According to Glassdoor, which annually identifies the 25 Best Jobs in America and 25 Highest Paying Jobs in Demand, data scientist was named the No. 1 best job in America and ranked 15th for highest salary and demand for 2016.

"Our world is overwhelmed with massive amounts of data that can potentially address global challenges,” said Douglas Cavener, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “To employ those data in solving problems and advancing society requires people with high-level skills in data analysis, and this is why our new major in data science is so important and timely."

According to Amr Elnashai, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering, the expansive growth “in the tools and theory related to data sciences cannot be accommodated with existing [Penn State] degrees.” Elnashai notes that Penn State’s size and academic diversity are well-suited to the interdisciplinary nature of a data sciences curriculum.

“The richness and breadth of Penn State programs would make a data sciences degree very strong and give Penn State the opportunity to be a leader in this area,” he said.

The underlying knowledge base for data sciences derives from machine learning, data mining, computer science, statistics and visualization, as well as the emerging science of managing and analyzing data at scale. After completing a set of common courses in computation, mathematics, databases and statistics at the pre-major stage, students who are admitted into the major will choose one of three options, focusing on application (College of IST), computation (College of Engineering) or statistical modeling (Eberly College of Science).

Mary Beth Rosson, associate dean for undergraduate and graduate studies in the College of IST, said that a data sciences undergraduate major is a win-win for both job applicants and employers. While a data sciences degree is not specific to an industry, internships and hands-on extensive coursework will prepare students for careers in areas such as health, medicine and business.

An advantage of the data sciences undergraduate program, Rosson said, is that it will enable industries to have entry-level positions in data sciences. In addition to providing opportunities for graduates of the program, this will allow the companies to save money since they won’t have to hire graduates with master’s or doctoral degrees to meet all of the data science needs.

“We are excited to be taking a leadership role at the University and nationwide, in this collaboration across three Penn State colleges,” Rosson said. “Our data science graduates will have the core skills and problem-solving approaches needed to compete for leading-edge analytics positions across many different industry sectors.”

For more information about Penn State’s Data Sciences degree program, visit

Last Updated April 22, 2016