Why you want a CS + Mathematics & Statistics degree

4/1/2024 Meghan Lu

Written by Meghan Lu

CS + X series by Women in Computer Science at Illinois

Mathematics & Statistics & Computer Science, Oh My!

“We’re not in Kansas anymore…”

I can say this proposition is true with 99.9% confidence.

This is because we are a few states over, looking at the two oldest and largest interdisciplinary computer science degree programs offered here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Mathematics & Computer Science and Statistics & Computer Science.

Why are these two degrees so popular? What is it like to study them? What doors do they open? Why should you care?

CS + X?

Before we dive in, we should address the ampersand in the room.

The Mathematics & Computer Science (Math & CS) and Statistics & Computer Science (Stats & CS) degrees programs are not considered CS + X. There is no official answer for why this is other than these two degrees were established decades before the CS + X programs.

Regarding Math/Stats & CS specific curriculums, there are no blended courses exclusive to the major as the interdisciplinary overlap comes so naturally in existing math, statistics, and computer science coursework. Unlike other CS + X degrees, these majors require Numerical Methods I (CS 357) and Calculus III (MATH 241).

Despite not being considered part of the CS + X's, Math/Stats & CS function the same as CS + X degrees in all other logistical aspects. The only repercussion is that Math & CS will never have the “and” symbol that perfectly doubles as an arithmetic operator.

What is Math & CS?

Did you know that Mathematics & Computer Science was Illinois's very first CS degree program, predating the CS Engineering undergraduate program by seven years?

While this may come as a surprise in today’s code-heavy world, math is the foundation of computer science. However, discrete mathematics and algorithms are already built into the core CS curriculum. Why take on the extra math classes?

Efthalia Karas, a Mathematics & Computer Science senior, chose the major due to her love for math. While sitting in math class as a high school senior, she felt sad at the prospect of never taking another math class, and was delighted to find out about this blended degree! At the time, she remembers thinking that “it seems like [the two subjects] support each other."

Now that she is finishing her last few classes, Karas has only strengthened that stance, explaining that “there’s a lot of overlap,” as math and CS classes sometimes teach the same concepts in different ways and varying levels of depth. For example, she took Graph Theory (MATH 412) and learned these graph concepts again in CS courses like CS 225 and CS 374. Due to this reinforcement of concepts, Karas says, “I feel like I have the whole picture because I’m learning about the theoretical side from the math classes and the application side from the CS classes.”

Math & CS Curriculum

Math & CS students will take the standard CS core classes like all other CS majors. One of the earliest requirements specific to Math & CS is Fundamental Mathematics (MATH 347). This class covers proof techniques and foundational math theory and is a prerequisite for most upper-level math courses. Additionally, the math curriculum lays out five “groups”, each consisting of 3–5 class options, usually in the same branch of math; students must take one class from each group. Stats & CS students also take Numerical Analysis (CS 450) and an additional 400-level math or CS elective.

Taking classes from each of the different groups gives Math & CS students a comprehensive view of different areas in mathematics theory. This allows a broader understanding of mathematics theory and the opportunity to discover one’s niche, while also providing the flexibility to pick the topics that interest them best.

Math & CS Opportunities

There are numerous research opportunities available to Mathematics & CS students on campus. “A common thing math people in CS do is work more on the theoretical side of CS because [they] have the proof skills," Karas notes. You can learn more about Illinois’s computer science theory and algorithms research area here! On the math side, Karas highlights the Illinois Geometry Lab for its range of undergraduate mathematics research opportunities and points out that most of their listed projects require some computer science experience. Karas explains that you “need the tools from your CS side," such as the ability to create “programs, visualization tools, and simulations," in order “to carry out the projects."

Outside of research, math and computer science enthusiasts can join a related registered student organization (RSO), such as the MATRIX math club or SIGma–the ACM SIG for math and algorithms. Look through the catalog of Illinois RSOs.

The interdisciplinary nature of the Math & CS degree may best be found in a theoretical CS postgraduate program or roles in fields such as quantitative finance or scientific computing. Even in roles with less intensive math responsibilities, knowledge of math concepts can still be useful. Karas brings up an example of software engineers using program verification, proving that a program has no bugs and does what it claims to do as a tool to plan how to write or debug code. A math education creates a solid foundation for logic and problem-solving skills that will benefit Math & CS graduates in any career they choose!

Why Stats & CS

Have you heard about Statistics & Computer Science?

It’s true! Stats & CS is the largest blended CS program at Illinois by yearly enrollments, beating out its cousin Math & CS for the role in Fall 2019. Even more astonishing is the program’s growth rate; Stats & CS enrollments more than doubled in the three years from 2016 to 2019!

The key to this sudden popularity lies in data. In 2016, the world’s annual global IP traffic passed the zettabyte threshold for the first time, kicking off the Zettabyte Era.

As big data grows exponentially, so does the potential of statistics and machine learning. Meghan Lu, is currently a junior in Statistics & CS. She chose her major because data is ubiquitous, and the amount that is collected is ever-increasing. She feels that, just like computer science, statistics is another tool that can be used in any field to solve countless problems.

On her experience as a Stats & CS major, Lu has found that both disciplines supplement each other in a very practical manner. Nearly every statistics course utilizes programming assignments (usually in R), so the basic skills she gained from CS classes–understanding coding fundamentals, reading code and documentation, and even downloading software–make her life much easier! On the CS side, she notes that strong statistics knowledge is essential in understanding machine learning theory. The constant exposure to math in statistics courses makes her feel more comfortable in CS algorithms and proof classes.

Stats & CS Curriculum

The required curriculum is uniformly distributed across statistics and computer science; it consists of all the core classes from each subject, plus additional electives.

The statistics core sequence consists of 5 courses, some of which are more theoretical and math-intensive while others are more applied. These courses provide a strong statistics and probability foundation. The CS core is standard to other CS majors at Illinois.

Stat & CS requires one computational application elective, fulfilled by machine learning or data-based CS classes, and one statistical application elective, fulfilled through select classes on statistical computing or statistical methods for data analysis/machine learning.

The list of Stats & CS elective courses highlights the applicational intersection between statistics and CS. Even if you are not in the major but are interested in the intersection area, it is worth checking out the list to get an idea of potential classes!

Stats & CS Opportunities

Stats & CS students have plenty of opportunities to learn more outside the classroom. Under the CS department, students may be interested in data and information systems and artificial intelligence research areas, and you can find further information about faculty and research projects here. The Statistics Department provides many opportunities as well. The Undergraduate Research Experience in Statistics (URES) program allows Statistics and Statistics & CS students to work on novel statistics projects–many of which require coding experience. They also hold the annual Illini Datathon, described on its web page as a “weekend of data-driven problem solving and learning!"

As the intersection of statistics and CS is becoming increasingly popular, there are many student initiatives to explore, such as SIGAIDA—an initiative that offers beginner-level machine learning experience as well as research discussions on the most relevant artificial intelligence papers in academia—Illini Statistics Club, Illinois Data Science Club, and more.

After graduation, Statistics & CS students have the necessary background to pursue the suite of data-related roles that have gained popularity within the last few years–including data scientist, data analyst, or data engineer. As with all CS students at Illinois, Stats & CS majors are also well-equipped for almost any career in tech, including software engineering, product management, and more!

Interested in learning more? Check out these resources:

Articles courtesy of the Illinois Women in Computer Science student group at The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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This story was published April 1, 2024.