Academics, Research

New data science school to leverage Carolina’s strengths

Two key campus administrators discuss the School of Data Science and Society as a “signpost” pointing to Carolina’s data science education, research and public service.

Stylized image of three silhouetted people against a background of numbers representing data.
Launching in phases beginning in fall 2022, the new School of Data Science and Society will serve Carolina's faculty, students and researchers. (Graphic by UNC Creative)

A new School of Data Science and Society with a proposed launch in fall 2022 will be porous and open, allowing faculty, students and staff to move in and out of its collaborative environment while pointing everyone to Carolina’s data-science related research, education of students at all levels and service to the state.

Two years ago, former Provost Bob Blouin asked two University administrators to shepherd plans for the school. Since then, Jay Aikat, chief operating officer at Carolina’s Renaissance Computing Institute, and Joe Canady, an administrative director in the Office of the Provost, worked with more than 100 faculty, staff and students from across campus on a proposal for the school.

The University’s Board of Trustees endorsed a plan to create the school in March 2020 as part of Carolina’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, then reiterated its support in January 2022.

Aikat, who is also a research professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ computer science department, and Canady answered The Well’s questions about the school.

Why create a school and what will its mission be?

Aikat: For a long time, a lot has been happening in data science at Carolina across different disciplines, especially in research. We’ve worked directly in foundational areas as well as using data science tools to advance other disciplines. In terms of education, there are some courses in different schools that address the need in those disciplines to teach data science and its tools. What we lack is a place which leverages all these strengths to build a strong data science ecosystem at Carolina.

Jay Aikat

Jay Aikat

A driving force for starting the school is to provide a way for students to have access to data science degrees at all levels — undergraduate, graduate and professional — as well as to have a place where collaborative research in data science can happen. Those students would become the next generation of data science leaders.

Another driver is service to the state, as the mission statement says, “through innovative research directed at advancing the public good.” The school will help North Carolina thrive. Also, as the flagship university in the system, we will provide a workforce of data scientists for so many industries and companies, not just Google and Apple.

Canady: In terms of mission, the school is differentiated from our peers by the emphasis on society. The mission statement emphasizes “empowering individuals across all sectors of society with the knowledge and skills to thrive in this data-driven world.” It ends with an emphasis on “advancing the public good with human-centric and ethical applications.”

Instead of only teaching students how to be data scientists, it also involves this human-centric approach and being able to solve ethical problems and serve the public.

Where will the school’s faculty and staff come from?

Aikat: The school will hire new faculty as well as leverage faculty who are already on campus. For the most part, we’d like to hire faculty as joint appointments with departments and other schools, because one of the ways that the school can be different is that it’s not a silo.

The proposal describes the school as porous and open because we want the faculty, researchers and students to be able to move in and out of the school. Carolina already has great collaborations, but this school should take that collaborative spirit to the next level, especially given the nature of this interdisciplinary field. It lends itself to that greater collaboration to solve problems.

Joe Canady

Joe Canady

Canady: We think that current faculty who are already doing this work will want to quickly become involved in the school. Establishing research clusters is a way to do that and an important facet of the school. That speaks to the school’s collaborative pan-campus nature, which makes it different than most other schools.

Aikat: The research clusters could evolve around major societal problems, with faculty from different disciplines such as health, humanities, social sciences, computer science and statistics coming together to solve these problems.

What are next steps?

Canady: We’re looking at launch phases over three years. The next step is for the University’s administration to appoint someone we’re calling an academic lead. This will be an internal person with the vision academically to lead the implementation of the new school.

Then, we begin executing the implementation plan. We’re optimistic about state funding being secured in the summer. If that funding comes through, along with some matching funding from the University, then we hope that the new school could officially launch in fall 2022.

Aikat: An advisory group will be created with representatives from across campus. The plans for the first year also include selecting administrators and hiring staff and actively planning for the degree programs.

Canady: We also foresee the research clusters forming in year one if funding comes through. Academic degree programs can take years to launch, so those are a year or two away.

What can you say about the formation of degree programs and other enhancements?

Aikat: A lot is happening to support the school’s formation. A minor in data science launched in fall 2021. It’s going strong under the statistics and operations research department in the College of Arts & Sciences. The college is planning an undergraduate major. We have a unique opportunity to design truly interdisciplinary undergraduate degree programs in data science.

We also envision innovative graduate programs, delivered through modular and nontraditional methods. Our professional schools already leverage data in their teaching and scholarship. The school will collaborate with them in developing programs and courses.

We’ve worked closely with (technology partner) 2U on an online master of applied data science degree program. Todd Nicolet, vice provost for Digital and Lifelong Learning, is working with us as well. We also are exploring ways to expand data literacy across campus for students, faculty and staff.

I don’t want people to assume that this all is going to happen in the first couple of years, but it’s part of the planning. A small set of students register for the programs and about 1,000 students graduate with degrees in them. We’d like to provide some basic data literacy courses that you could apply to any discipline across campus.

The school will act as the signpost, if you will, for all these activities.

Canady: The school will provide students the real-world, applied knowledge so that they can get high demand jobs. Data science jobs are growing around the world, particularly in the RTP and other parts of North Carolina. When employers come to RTP with high paying jobs, we will be able to educate and equip these students to get those jobs when they graduate.

We talk about Apple and Google moving their operations to the region, but numerous companies are locating here. Their efforts around data science are growing. So we’re meeting the need. And, as Provost Chris Clemens likes to say, it’s not just about providing our students with opportunities for these really great jobs, but providing this workforce that benefits the state.