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New center, minor connect data and students

Illustration by Esther Tang

By Kimmy Schuster     10/31/18 12:26am

A new data center will support the creation of the new data science minor and provide students with learning experiences in data science, while enhancing data-intensive research at Rice University and building partnerships with outside organizations, according to Genevera Allen, founder and faculty director.

The Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge, or the D2K Lab, was created following a $4 million gift from Rice alumnus Kevin Harvey and his wife Catherine Harvey.
Sofia Escobar, a Brown College sophomore, said the D2K Lab provides students with valuable real-world experience in data science.

“In this modern digital environment, data makes the world go round, and having the ability to navigate through so much information in a smart and ethical way is becoming a vital skill that is needed in all professions and career paths,” Escobar said. “The D2K is a great way to get a taste of what the professional environment is like.”

A major part of the D2K concept is the co-creation of the data science minor, Matthias Heinkenschloss, professor of computational and applied math, said. 

“The DSCI minor will be well-rounded, with computational, communication, ethical and project-based components,” professor of psychological sciences Fred Oswald said. “The D2K is pivotal to the DSCI minor, as a signature element of the minor is the capstone project experience that is proposed to be housed in and coordinated through the D2K center.”

A Provost-appointed committee of faculty members, co-chaired by Oswald and professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering Devika Subramanian, developed the DSCI minor. 

“[The center’s] mission is to connect Rice students and faculty with opportunities to make a real-world impact through data science in our community,” Allen said.

Starting in the 2019-20 academic year, all D2K Lab classes will be offered through the DSCI course code, and the D2K Learning Lab will serve as the capstone course for the minor, Allen said. The Committee on Undergraduate Curriculum is currently reviewing and finalizing the proposal for the minor. 

Housed in the George R. Brown School of Engineering, the D2K Lab was created in spring 2018 with a pilot course, and now currently offers two experiential learning courses in data science: Data Science Consulting (STAT 415) and Data Science Projects (STAT 435).
While the courses offered are in the statistics department, Allen said students from any major can get involved with the D2K Lab.

“We especially want students from diverse disciplines to join our D2K Learning Lab teams as discipline experts,” Allen said. “For example, a history major can be a member of a team studying digital text analysis for historical texts.”

Allen said students can get involved in the D2K Learning Lab through the many co-curricular data science programs and events on campus this year, including the D2K Learning Lab Showcase on Nov. 28, a D2K/Rice DataSci Club sponsored weekend “data-thon,” a distinguished speaker series and multiple data-visualization contests.

“I’m really excited for more opportunities for Rice students to get involved with projects that extend beyond the hedges,” Ben Herndon-Miller, a Will Rice College senior and student in the D2K Learning Lab, said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to get real-world, practical experience since so much of our education is highly theoretical.” 

According to Allen, the D2K Learning Lab brings together interdisciplinary student and faculty research teams to work on real-world data science challenges through community partnerships. 

“All of the courses, programs and events the D2K Lab offers will be done in partnership with people who have real-world data science problems,”  Allen said. “These people could be Rice researchers from any discipline across campus, Texas Medical Center researchers or medical professionals, community partners, as well as companies.”

The Data Science Projects course located in the D2K Learning Lab started the semester with 12 group projects, and each team is guided by a sponsor mentor that knows the discipline well and a data science faculty mentor to help on the technical side. 

The D2K Consulting Clinic allows students, supported by faculty mentors, to learn best practices in data science consulting through working with real clients, according to pilot class member Anna Cowan, a Jones College senior. 

Allen said the clinic has helped three to seven clients each Monday during the fall 2018 semester, including members of the Rice community, medical center professionals and the Houston Fire Department.

Emily Rychener, a student in the course, said she is working with four other students to improve the 311 program, which is Houston’s resolution system for non-emergency citizen complaints. 

“I’ve really enjoyed this project because it’s allowed me to work with real, messy data and know that my team is working to improve programs that affect the community in which we live,” Rychener, a Lovett College senior, said.

This piece has been updated to reflect Fred Oswald’s affiliation with Rice University.

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