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Caltech Unveils New Major and Minor in Information and Data Sciences

Starting in fall 2018, the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (EAS) will offer students a new undergraduate degree option in a field that is at the forefront of computer science: information and data sciences (IDS).colorful circuit board image

The new option will focus on the acquisition, storage, communication, processing, and analysis of data—making sense of a world where information is acquired at an ever-increasing rate, with opportunities to generate actionable knowledge based on its analysis.

“Humans can’t deal directly with the tremendous volume of data that we are currently collecting. It holds endless potential but also presents a huge challenge. If we are going to make sense of big volumes of data, we need to create new automated pipelines for processing it,” says Adam Wierman, professor and executive officer of EAS’s computing and mathematical sciences department. “With this new option, we’re going to give the next generation of engineers the tools to develop those pipelines.”

Mathematics will form the backbone of the new option. Students in IDS will take core courses focusing on machine learning, information theory, probability, statistics, linear algebra, and signal processing. After that, they will have the opportunity to branch out with electives that cover applications of data sciences to science and engineering. Because of the broad applicability of the degree—and the interdisciplinary nature of Caltech—Wierman sees an opportunity for students to branch out into biology, economics, chemistry, and other diverse fields.

“Everyone uses data and needs to extract answers from the data they’ve collected. A student with a strong foundation in information and data sciences can apply those skills in any field across campus and around the world,” Wierman says. That mindset is embodied by the “CS + X” philosophy of the computer science department, where computer science is combined with whatever “X” area of translation a student is interested in pursuing.

The IDS option will also offer a minor that focuses on the foundations of information and data sciences for students in other majors who are seeking to supplement their skill set.

A key component of this program will be select collaborations with private industry to make connections between current industry-relevant challenges and how data sciences can provide innovative solutions. Support for the new option comes from two founding partners: Newport Beach-headquartered investment management company PIMCO and cloud-computing provider Amazon Web Services (AWS). Funding from these two partners will supportgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows in data sciences who will teach courses and conduct research with students in the IDS program. The partners will also support computing resources, such as AWS Cloud Credits, and provide students and faculty in the option access to data.

The IDS option will provide new opportunities for faculty as well as students. Drawing advisers from multiple divisions—including EAS as well as the divisions of Biology and Biological Engineering (BBE) and Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS)—IDS will unite researchers and allow them to tackle outstanding problems in managing big data.

“Many disciplines are coming to grips with how to handle large amounts of data or model output, including the earth and climate sciences,” says Andrew Thompson, professor of environmental science and engineering in GPS, and one of the advisers for the new option. “This new program provides an opportunity to work with students with backgrounds different from our typical graduate students and who are likely to have unique insight on how to develop new analysis techniques.”

In the end, Wierman hopes the creation of this new option will prepare both students and Caltech for the future. “It almost doesn’t matter what you’re interested in. If you want to make discoveries and be on the cutting edge of your field, you’re going to need the skills to analyze and manipulate large collections of information,” he says.


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