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$50 million data science initiative moves forward

By Cameron Wallace     3/1/17 2:40pm

Starting as early as next year, Rice University’s $50 million Data Science Initiative will be hiring new faculty members in preparation for creating a new minor, additional classes and possible master’s programs for undergraduate and graduate students at Rice.

According to Rachel Kimbro and Keith Cooper, co-chairs of the Data Science Search and Programming Committee, data science is less of a specialized research field and more of a collection of tools that people of all disciplines will increasingly need.

“Data science skills are increasingly recognized as 21st-century skills, and we would like for Rice students to have the opportunity to acquire them, because those skills are going to be necessary across a wide range of careers,” Kimbro and Cooper said in an emailed statement. “It is about sharing tools and techniques which researchers then deploy in their own fields. In other words, the same tools are useful across a wide range of disciplines; and what’s needed is to bring researchers together from across those fields to learn the tools and develop new ones.”

Kimbro and Cooper, who are respectively professors of sociology and computer science, said this will entail programmatic additions to Rice’s curriculum such as a new minor and possibly a masters’ programs. The initiative was launched in 2015.

“Out of this community, we will see the development of a novel undergraduate minor in data science and, quite likely, one or more professional masters’ programs,” Kimbro and Cooper said. “These programs will equip Rice graduates with the knowledge, skills, and understanding to play active roles in the emerging data-driven sectors of both the academic world and the business world.”

Fred Oswald, co-chair of the Data Science Curriculum Committee, said these additions will be buttressed by changes in course offerings for undergraduate students, including restructuring current offerings and adding new ones.

“We want to shape [current programs] into the broader initiative and bring people together,” Oswald said. “And then we want to add new curricular angles. So we are setting a framework, and trying to take the innovation on the hiring side and add that to our foundation in terms of data science.”

The Data Science Curriculum Committee has laid out four specific core competencies that form the basis of data science skills. These are roughly speaking creativity, analysis, communications, and ethics, Oswald and committee co-chair Devika Subramanian said.

Current Rice faculty also stand to benefit from the Initiative. Kimbro and Cooper said that new technologies and data techniques will provide new opportunities for creative research, and new faculty members are expected to spark new cross-disciplinary collaborations.

“The hope is that the new hires will help to galvanize the faculty who are here and bring cutting-edge tools to campus to enhance the data science going on here already,” Kimbro and Cooper said. “The activities and programs that we create to begin to integrate these new faculty into the community will also strengthen the existing community and, we hope, broaden their horizons.”

According to Provost Lynn Marie Miranda, the Initiative will not only lead to new programs, but also help to strengthen Rice’s current interaction with Houston.

“Even before the Data Science Initiative, many at Rice were engaged with Houston,” Miranda said. “One example is the Urban Data Platform for Houston, led by Kathy Ensor, professor of statistics. Rice’s commitment to the DSI contributed to the Houston Endowment’s decision to fund the platform.”

Subramanian said data science offerings will teach students versatile skills.

“You may not be able to do what a computer scientist does, but they may not be able to come up with the clever questions that you can,” Subramanian said. “We don't want you to have to go find a computer scientist.”

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