Inaugurated in January 2017, the online Master of Science in Data Science degree program at Merrimack College recently graduated its 100th student in December 2020.  For program faculty, achieving the milestone offered a moment to reflect on the program’s evolution, as well as its future.

“The program is thriving,” says department chair Dr. Michael Bradley. “While it is big and successful enough to offer very high-quality courses and instruction, it is still small enough to offer a personalized experience.”

Merrimack’s data science program may not have the international reputation or name recognition of some larger schools, but for many, its medium size strikes the right balance. The program attracts faculty with high-level industry experience and is able to offer each student personal attention.

“It is this balance of quality and individual student focus that leads to the program’s ongoing success,” adds Dr. Bradley.

Merrimack’s Online DSA Program

The curriculum was designed from the start with input from leading professionals. This core alignment ensures students gain the competencies the industry requires. “It’s a big advantage of starting from scratch,” says Dr. Andrew Banasiewicz, Professor of Practice and Director of Graduate Data Science & Analytics Programs.

Building a program from the ground-up with industry collaboration meant “we didn’t have to convince anyone that the ‘old way’ needed revamping,” says Banasiewicz.

The program launched in 2017 with two tracks: Data Science and Business Analytics. A Healthcare Analytics track was added in September 2019 to “broaden the curriculum’s scope, ” says Dr. Bradley. With COVID-19 arriving on the world stage just months later, the timing couldn’t have been more prescient.

Current events like the pandemic and the recent U.S. election gave students topics for classroom discussion and capstone projects. This focus highlights the program’s practical application to real-world issues.

“The DSA program challenged me to apply data analytics to real-world problems that used real data,” says Briana Schumacher, the program’s 100th graduate. “For example, in my Data Mining class, we used COVID-19 related variables and observations to make predictions on how to slow down the rate of infection throughout the United States.”

Nimble and Experienced

The staff has two full-time professors, Dr. Banasiewicz and Dr. Fotios Kokkotos, each with about 25 years of experience in the field. Ten others instruct part-time. All are working professionals with extensive real-world experience. Instead of spreading their expertise thin across numerous courses, each faculty member teaches only one or two classes.

The data science program faculty also includes a programming mentor and a success coach. Torrey Walker, the success coach, is an essential element of the program. Walker gets to know each student personally and is available to help with questions and challenges.

Another advantage of the Merrimack program is class size, averaging 15 to 20 students.  Smaller classes give faculty the opportunity to provide each student the maximum benefit of their varied experience. Students take one course at a time, allowing them to concentrate their full attention on each topic successively.

Students Excel

More than just a curriculum with professors and students, the program strives – and succeeds – at building community. Students progress through the program together as a cohort, getting to know and learning from each other.

The close-knit collegial atmosphere among students and staff carries forth as graduates advance in their careers, sometimes forming partnerships that continue long after graduation.

A sampling of the jobs in which graduates work demonstrates the value of their studies at Merrimack:

  • Machine Learning Engineer
  • Data Scientist
  • Data Platform Engineer
  • Business Intelligence Analyst
  • Executive Vice President
  • Big Data Architect

Likewise, a look into some of the companies hiring graduates reveals the program’s industry alignment:

  • Raytheon
  • Microsoft
  • Cedars-Sinai Hospital
  • JPMorgan Chase & Co
  • Charles River Laboratories
  • Amazon Robotics
  • Thermo Fisher Scientific

Brianna Schumaker’s success as the 100th graduate demonstrates the opportunities for women in a male-dominated field. “Women are typically underrepresented in data science,” says Banasiewicz. “But we are fortunate to have top-notch female scientists on faculty who serve as role models for women like Briana. Women can thrive in this program.”

Ethics and Data Science in the Modern World

Data drives the modern world. We all leave trails of digital dust as we move about our daily lives. Dr. Bradley emphasizes the responsibility demanded of having access to the private information of others.

Consequently, data ethics is an essential component of the DSA program. The Data Governance, Laws & Ethics course addresses many of the ethical and legal issues around data science and analytics.

Discussions take on the problematic themes of data quality, reliability, and bias in algorithms. “For instance,” Dr. Bradley says, “facial recognition algorithms have been criticized for inherent racial and gender biases.     ”

The Future of the Merrimack DSA Program

The program started strong and continues to thrive, iterating along the way to continually improve. The capstone projects are a good example. “All of the capstones have always been very hands-on,” says Dr. Banasiewicz. However, in the beginning, they solved the “the same problem for different companies.”

Risk management was one of those universal challenges. Every organization must manage its risk to survive and accomplish its mission. While the fundamentals may be similar, the particulars are distinct between, for example, a car company and a healthcare company. Capstone projects now address specific problems that an organization needs to solve.

For example, Lawrence General Hospital had collected a trove of COVID-19 data but needed help turning it into useful information. Dr. Kokkotos facilitated a partnership with the hospital, and in a class capstone project, his students helped analyze and make sense of the data. Industry-aligned projects tackling real-world issues like this are central to the program’s future.

In addition, Dr. Bradley says an updated curriculum adds new courses that will “give students even more options and flexibility.” As always, new course offerings receive extensive input from industry partners.

With an experienced, dedicated staff interested in each student’s success, the program continues to play to its strengths, iterate improvement, and prepare students for leadership roles in data science.