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ENG adapts curriculum to meet today’s industry demands

Students work in the Engineering Product Innovation Center at BU. Beginning next fall, engineering students will be required to take data science courses. PHOTO BY FELIX PHILLIPS/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Data science is becoming a more prevalent topic in the world of engineering, and Boston University’s College of Engineering will be changing its curriculum to reflect that. Starting in the fall of 2018, the college will be introducing new data science requirements for its students.

The requirement will replace the linear algebra requirement with a computational linear algebra requirement and replace the separate probability and statistics requirement with a single course on probability, statistics and data science, said ENG dean Kenneth Lutchen. These new requirements will apply to all majors within the college.

“We approached it so that every engineering student can graduate with a deep knowledge of not only their discipline — mechanical or electrical or biomedical or computer — but a sense of how data science principles and machine learning might affect innovations that need their discipline,” Lutchen said. “And that’s fairly unique, nationally.”

Many engineering schools throughout the country offer data science at the graduate level, Lutchen said, but few offer data science programs for undergraduates. Additionally, existing data science programs are often their own entities, not integrated with other engineering majors as BU’s will be.

ENG freshman Deema Abdel-Meguid said she thinks having a background in data science is very important.

“A lot of what we learn these days is how to analyze the work of others and build off of it,” Abdel-Meguid said, “and a strong foundation in data science is needed to do so.”

Data science, while a vague term, emphasizes turning raw data into useful information, wrote Christos Cassandras, head of the Division of Systems Engineering, in an email.

“Part of data science is about establishing facts, and we all know that in today’s world people have trouble recognizing and respecting facts,” Cassandras wrote. “A data-driven education will hopefully help us all re-assert our respect for facts and distinguish them from fiction.”

The new data science course is meant to help students adapt to new advancements in the field of engineering.

“It used to be that we were data-poor and had to use most of our intelligence to get around limited data availability in order to develop the accurate models we need,” Cassandras wrote. “We are now data-rich and must learn how to intelligently build our models by exploiting the enormous amounts of data at our disposal.”

In addition to teaching students how to navigate modern engineering problems, the new courses will better prepare students for the engineering in their futures, William Karl, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, wrote in an email.

“I view it less as a ‘requirement’ and more [as] an opportunity,” Karl wrote. “What we have done is redesign some of our core classes to provide exposure and literacy in the issues that are increasingly important for a world impacted by the presence of large data, machine learning, and data science.”

Karl wrote that data science is especially valuable for engineering students to learn given its increasing importance in engineering today.

[Data science is] becoming prevalent in everything we do, create, and manufacture,” Karl wrote. “We need our graduates to be leaders, not just users, in the modern digital economy.”

The new emphasis on data science will benefit engineers of many different fields, John White, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, wrote in an email. Data science is becoming more applicable in its use, including predicting treatment outcomes for patients or studying datasets from new experimental tools in biology.

ENG senior Hiva Hosseini said she thinks engineering students who study data science could have more job opportunities and a greater variety of career options after graduation.

“A friend of mine is getting her graduate degree in [data science], and she has a lot of job opportunities open to her after graduation, which is why she’s choosing this field,” Hosseini said.

The new requirements reflect the growing importance of data science in today’s world, White wrote.

“We have entered an era in which the amount of data that can be collected is simply staggering,” White wrote. “Advances in data sciences and computing technology will allow us to make sense of all these data.”

Besides the new data science requirement, the college is introducing three new electives, Lutchen said: Introduction to Robotics, Machine Learning for Engineers and Smart and Autonomous Systems. These classes are now being piloted at BU, but will be fully implemented for incoming freshmen this fall.

Introduction to Engineering, a course already offered, will also see some curriculum changes that emphasize having students build projects on their own, from coding programs to using 3D printing.

ENG freshman Aaron Hwang said he thinks these data science and machine learning courses will be useful in learning about new approaches to engineering topics.

“Nobody lives in a vacuum,” Hwang said. “That is why I believe that the new data science requirement will be the first step towards the new age of interdisciplinary engineers equipped with the skills necessary to approach problems today.”

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