College of Engineering Will Now Require Data Science for All Majors

Change will prepare students for a digital and maker economy

In new mathematics and statistics courses, ENG students will learn to analyze huge data sets and be introduced to machine learning, a major component of autonomous systems, like self-driving cars and robotics.

For decades, product developers have depended on a primary engineering discipline to turn a design into a product. Car makers, for example, were helpless without the skills of mechanical engineers. But these days, those same car makers hire software engineers as well as computer, electrical, mechanical, and systems engineers. Why? Because today’s products, at least those produced by innovative companies, require an interdisciplinary approach, one that often uses massive amounts of data.

As the increasing importance of data science, not just in the design of cars, but in healthcare, urban design, the internet of things, and other fields, has changed the workplace for engineers, it has also changed undergraduate education at the College of Engineering. Beginning in the fall, all students will take courses in data science, and they will learn to apply relevant tools and techniques to some of today’s cutting-edge, multidisciplinary technologies.

“The era of the single-discipline engineer is over,” says Kenneth R. Lutchen dean of ENG. “Most innovation now requires multiple engineering disciplines interacting with large data sets. Making sure our students are literate in data analysis is in keeping with our mission to create societal engineers. With this knowledge, Boston University engineers will have the tools to improve society for many years to come.”

The curriculum change began in fall 2016, when an ENG task force was charged with recommending revisions to the undergraduate curriculum to ensure that graduates are better prepared to work in the emerging digital and maker economy.
“We are one of the first engineering schools nationally that has designed a curriculum for which students in every major will take an interdisciplinary, data-driven approach,” Lutchen says. “We are aware that in the future, every engineering discipline, from mechanical to biomedical to computer, will intersect with data science.”

The new curriculum will replace ENG’s existing two-credit linear algebra course with a three-credit computational linear algebra course. A single new four-credit probability, statistics, and data science for engineers course will replace the separate and distinct probability and statistics courses that had been offered by each department. The new course will include the tools and techniques to analyze huge data sets and an introduction to machine learning, which is becoming a large part of autonomous systems. Three 400-level elective courses—introduction to machine learning, smart and connected systems, and introduction to robotics—will also be offered and will be open to students in all majors.


Data sets can process data from in-home medical sensors or help to develop drug molecules targeting specific microbes.

“Typically, engineering students are not expected to have this data science foundation,” says Thomas Little, ENG associate dean for educational initiatives and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Our new curriculum introduces them to mathematical concepts that allow them to appreciate the analytical capabilities provided by contemporary large-scale computing.”

Little says data analytics and data-driven technological systems are playing a central role in many rapidly emerging technologies, such as smart cities and self-driving vehicles. “Cyber-physical systems are producing and consuming massive amounts of data, and safety is often critical,” he says. “We need to be sure our graduates are prepared to use these new analytical techniques to tackle these modern challenges.”

In another, related curriculum change, all freshmen will design and build a product—whether physical or software—as part of the introduction to programming and introduction to engineering modules. Little says this will help build a stronger connection between the challenging first-year coursework and what students will do after graduation.

“This reflects what is going on in the maker world,” he says. “Our Engineering Product Innovation Center allows us to bring this to all students. This will transform the freshman year. Our students come to us wanting to build things, and we need to keep that alive.”

The new curriculum will apply to all students in the next academic year. In addition to incoming freshmen, current students who have not yet taken linear algebra or probability and statistics will take the new courses that include data science.

“Students need this now,” says Lutchen. “The next wave of innovations that address our societal challenges and life quality need a workforce comfortable in the era of big-data and interdisciplinarity.”

 Author, Michael Seele can be reached at