Academics

New Major to Prepare Students for Jobs in Machine Learning

by Erin O'Boyle

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  • Saint Joseph’s University launched a new undergraduate major in machine learning for business applications this fall.
  • This program is the only one in the region aimed specifically at undergraduate students, giving them a step ahead of their peers in this industry.
  • An important impetus for the new major is the significant demand for professionals in the artificial intelligence (AI) industry.

Demand for jobs in emerging sectors including machine learning, data science and artificial intelligence has grown exponentially in recent years. Even professionals who aren’t charged with building these technologies will be expected to understand what they are and how they can be leveraged in business.

With that in mind, Saint Joseph’s launched a new undergraduate major in machine learning for business applications this fall. According to Krishna Padmanabhan, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Decision and System Sciences, the machine learning for business applications (MLBA) major was developed in a timely manner to allow students to take advantage of the opportunities in the industry.

Machine learning is a method of data analysis and a subset of artificial intelligence (AI) that focuses on the study of computer algorithms that automatically improve through experience. Examples include personalized Netflix and Amazon suggestions, targeted ads, self-driving cars, drones, natural language understanding and game-playing robots. 

The demand for professionals in the field of AI is so high, it far exceeds the supply. According to a study conducted by Indeed.com, machine learning engineer jobs grew 344% from 2015-2018, with an average base annual salary of $148,000.

“There aren’t enough people moving into this career,” Padmanabhan says. “First of all, computing speed keeps increasing exponentially. The speed at which computers analyze data continues to go up. The second big shift happening now is the ability for humans to collect data everywhere. As more of humanity goes online, we’re collecting more data. And third, because of the explosion of data, mathematicians and computer scientists have been developing new and better algorithms.”

These three factors combined have contributed to the explosion of AI, and Saint Joseph’s new major gives students a chance to become experts in AI machine learning techniques, including Python programming.

“Too many people call themselves data scientists, when the name should mean something,” Padmanabhan says. “This program would give our students an official recognition of how specialized their education is.”

According to Padmanabhan, Saint Joseph’s is the only university in the region offering a program like this to undergraduates. 

“This puts us one step beyond other universities, and keeps us up with the demands of the industry,” he says. “As part of this program, students will be able to learn the latest machine learning techniques and become experts in how to leverage them in a business environment. This will make them more attractive to employers in a competitive job market.”

Among the students signed up for the major this fall are several rising seniors. Some are switching majors, having completed all the necessary prerequisites, and others are double-majoring. 

“There is [one particular] prerequisite course – data mining – for all machine learning courses that students can take their junior,” Padmanabhan says. 

Demand for this prerequisite course is now so strong that the department has added two more sections to accommodate all the students who wanted to sign up. 

“A way to gauge interest in this program is to see how many people take that data mining class in their junior year.”

Padmanabhan is confident that graduates of the program, the first of whom will receive their degrees in spring 2021, will be prepared to enter the industry in positions such as business intelligence analysts or data scientists. 

“It’s rewarding to know that we're preparing these students to work in exciting industries that have the potential to change the world, and that we're helping these students be secure in their careers for years to come.”