Everything goes in first-of-its-kind science degree

In partnership with a for-profit company, the University of New Haven has launched a new degree in data science that combines academic learning and work experience.

data-science-degreeIn the wake of an influential 2011 McKinsey report showing that the U.S. may face a shortfall of 190,000 data scientists by 2018, several prominent universities—including Columbia, Stanford, and UC Berkeley—have begun offering degrees in the subject. The latest entrant—the University of New Haven—is taking a different approach, with an experiential degree that is anchored in real-life industry work.

Launched in March, UNH’s Master of Science in Data Science is the product of an unusual partnership with Galvanize, a company that is part tech education startup and part industry incubator. The UNH degree program, known as GalvanizeU, will operate out of Galvanize’s large campus in the SOMA district of San Francisco, which is also home to various startup initiatives under the company’s wing.

The decision by UNH to partner with a for-profit company was spurred by the rapid pace at which the data science field is evolving. “Universities tend to work at slow speed at best; comparatively, industry moves much, much faster,” said Ron Harichandran, dean of the Tagliatela College of Engineering at UNH. “Galvanize has a fast entrepreneurial approach that is stimulating to us. They’re a little more oriented like industry than academia. They move quickly.”

Even more important in UNH’s eyes, Galvanize is plugged into Silicon Valley’s corporate and startup culture, opening the door for students to gain hands-on industry experience as part of the degree program. “Galvanize’s connections in industry are a big advantage,” said Harichandran. “For us, establishing those connections would take a lot of time and effort, plus Galvanize is on location in the Bay Area. They bring already-established relationships to the table.”

(Next page: The innovative degree design; how students will gain experience)

Degree goals

The goal is to provide students with a combination of academic learning and industry experience so they can hit the ground running at the end of the 12-month program. “When we came to this project, the question was, ‘What is a hiring manager of data science looking for in a new hire?'” said Michael Tamir, chief science officer and VP of data science and education products at Galvanize. “There’s usually about six months, maybe longer, before you can really expect strong productivity from someone who’s just straight out of academia.”

To give GalvanizeU students the combination of academic and industry experience they need, the program is split among instructional classes, an internship with a member company, and a capstone project. The first eight months cover instructional classes, beginning with a two-month focus on math, coding, and statistics. “We want to ensure that everybody is level-set with the same core skills for when we dive into the deep machine learning, natural language processing, and everything that is coming up,” said Tamir.

Industry experience

Student interaction with industry occurs on multiple levels. During the last four months of the program, students serve a 300-hour internship as a data scientist for one of Galvanize’s partner companies. During the year, they must also complete a capstone project, where they work on an initiative of their own in conjunction with partner companies.

In describing the overall program, Tamir draws a comparison with a teaching hospital. “We have actual clients,” he said, noting that all faculty members participate in the company’s consulting program, which provides data science services to companies. “Not only do students learn the theory, but they get to shadow the professors as they work. They get to see how we actually interact once we get into the field, and ultimately they get to participate under the supervision of the faculty members.”

The first cohort comprises just 10 students, although the size of future cohorts will rise to 30, with plans to start a new degree cycle every four months. Currently, UNH is accepting half the number of students who apply to the $48,000 program, and the university is already planning to expand the program to at least one other campus in the U.S.

Standards and the for-profit issue

Since the degree will carry the imprimatur of UNH, control remains firmly in the school’s hands. “Academic quality and implementation, the recruitment of students, and financial aid are all controlled through UNH,” said Harichandran. “In addition, all of the faculty are interviewed by us and the curriculum is vetted through here.”

While Harichandran acknowledges that academic partnerships with for-profit companies have not always been successful, he believes that data science is a field that almost requires close cooperation with industry. “It is crucial that these students have the experience of working with companies,” he said. “It will give them a real head start when they graduate.”

According to Galvanize, some of the graduates are likely to be hired by the same companies where they perform their internships, while the rest will walk into one of the hottest job markets in the country for their particular skills. “When they come out of the program, our students will not only know how to work the machine learning algorithms but will ultimately become team leads for their peers,” said Tamir. “They have to have some soft skills: how to deal with clients, how to talk to CEOs, how to communicate in general. It’s really an industry-immersion program.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor for eCampus News.

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