Science Education at UvA-VU: Master's in Computational Science

8 March 2016

‘Nature is a complex system that processes information. Computational Science aims to make the complexity of those systems traceable.’ So it says on the website of the Master’s in Computational Science, and it is the definition that programme director Mike Lees cites to describe his field.

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It is a multidisciplinary field, he says, that incorporates both the theory of computing and areas of application. According to Lees, the diversity of these applications makes the Amsterdam-based programme unique in the Netherlands. A good illustration of this diversity are the backgrounds of the students who enrol for the programme: from biologists to physicists, computer scientists of course, but also a doctor. ‘He was frustrated by his trials and decided he wanted to create model simulations himself to study his field.’

Matter of course

Prospective students do not have to choose between two Amsterdam-based programmes: UvA and VU merged their Master’s in Computational Science five years ago, ‘to combine the strengths of both universities,’ says Lees. UvA researchers are particularly good at computer modelling and simulations, whereas their VU colleagues are strong on high-performance computing: solving computational problems as quickly and efficiently as possible. After five years, this collaboration has become a matter of course, says Lees. ‘I always find my VU colleagues most helpful when we come together to talk about the programme.’

Making up the difference

Before they embark on the programme, all new students are expected to have some programming skills and mathematical knowledge, he continues. They start their Master’s with an introduction to Computational Science. ‘We hope this will bring everyone up to the basic level that we want to see.’ The differences in knowledge before people start the course are significant, he adds, but they can be made up. ‘For example, we have an architect who has turned out to be one of our best students.’

Different locations

Students attend lectures in different locations depending on where their lecturers are based. For example, for a typical UvA course like Alfons Hoekstra’s Stochastic Simulation they have to go to the Science Park, says Lees, whereas for Henri Bal’s Parallel Programming course they have to be at VU’s De Boelelaan site. ‘But we do try to plan full days at UvA and full days at VU.’


But students do not have to restrict themselves to Amsterdam, continues Lees. ‘We offer specialist programmes like Computational Biology and Computational Finance. These are what we recommend to students. But we have an open curriculum and students are free to choose their own modules. And that could be a course in Leiden, for example.’

Joint degree

Lees barely noticed the fact that, until now, students had to formally enrol with one of the two universities: ‘It is a unified programme.’ As of next year, all new students will enrol for the new joint degree. And the majority of existing students who will then be in the second year of their Master’s will also transfer to the joint degree, says Lees. ‘They’ve already been regarding the programme as a joint degree,’ explains Lees, ‘and that’s what will be on their degree certificates.’

Text: Jeroen Scharroo

Published by  Faculty of Science