Guest Column: February 2022
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
When it comes to data science education,
we can’t stop at the students
Stephen Addison, Ph.D.,
Professor of Physics,
Dean, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
University of Central Arkansas
LAST MONTH IN this newsletter, Dr. Karl Schubert of the University of Arkansas spoke about the DART (for “Data Analytics that are Robust and Trusted”) initiative that he and I are spearheading across the state. It’s an ambitious plan to ensure that all Arkansas students will soon have access to an IT/data science degree program, and that they can “start anywhere, finish anywhere.” In other words, they’ll be able to begin their studies at a two-year school near them, and complete their degree at any one of several four-year schools statewide, including a four-year school also close to home, if that’s what they so desire.
The National Science Foundation/State of Arkansas grant for this initiative is being administered by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC), but Karl and I and others, including Jennifer Fowler at AEDC, began work on this project at least a year before the proposal was submitted. Karl and I got to know each other through that process, and we decided we weren’t going to wait for the grant. This was an opportunity that could pass the state by, if there was a delay.
So we started looking at what we could do even without resources to get our programs up and running. And part of that was letting people know what a data science curriculum at this level should look like, and also that we were willing to partner with all schools across the state to create an open pathway for our young people to enjoy well-paying IT careers right here at home.
An important component of this is the building of a tech talent infrastructure that will be attractive to prospective employers to either remain in Arkansas or, if they’re headquartered elsewhere, to actually move to the state, because many data operations are now being outsourced. One very good bit of good news is that we’re starting with a level playing field. This isn't a situation in which other institutions have a 50-year head start, or anything like that. In terms of a cooperative, collaborative effort, this DART program is unique.
ALL OF THAT said, we in higher education, or in government, or in the business sphere sometimes assume that everyone understands the importance and potential of Information Technology in today’s world. But if we step outside of our own echo chambers, we find that there’s still a lot of educating to do.
Many Arkansas students are first-generation college goers. That means that their parents don't know what the opportunities out there may be, and, by the same token, when we’re talking about a new field like data science, many households of high- school students in this state don't know much about it, either. So our first-generation students have to take a leap of faith about a new field, and to make that possible, we have to educate them and everyone around them.
I was recruiting in a small town a while back, and a mother brought her daughter to the session that UCA was hosting. Her daughter wanted to study math in college, and this mother actually wanted me tell her daughter that there weren't any jobs for math graduates. These parents of first-time college goers may be high school graduates, or they may not be. Typically, though, they don't know much about STEM careers. In fact, they’re usually aware of only two options—going to medical school, which they say they can’t afford, and being a school teacher, which they think is the only option for science and math students, and which they don’t want for their child.
So when this mom brought her daughter to our session wanting me to confirm her belief that there weren't any jobs for math graduates, I instead reeled off a long, long list of very good job opportunities for a young woman with a math degree. I could’ve kept going, but it was clear that I had made my point.
The bottom line here is that if we’re to build a homegrown Arkansas workforce for the 21st century, we have to do more than educate, and train, our future tech workers. We have to educate their extended families as well, about all those other wonderful opportunities out there—about the jobs to be had in data science and computer science, in cybersecurity, and so on. And not just jobs, but jobs near where they live. Because part of the issue with first-generation college students is apparently that they either don't want to leave home, or they want to at least be able to live close to home.
With data science, which of course is growing rapidly, they're probably prime candidates for actually being able to work from home in many cases. So I spend a lot of time explaining data science. I tell them what a data science problem would look like, and what the job opportunities are. I also tell them that we in Arkansas need lots of people going into data science, because that's what will be attractive to future potential employers. I also talk about what those IT workers would be doing day to day when they go to their jobs.
When you've been doing this as long as I have, you recognize that typically one of the parents is the decision-maker. Sometimes we'll see cases where a student has heard something about data science because they're online, but then either the mother or the father steps in and decides where their child is going to go to school and what they're going to major in, at least at the beginning.
Predicting ahead of time whether it’s going to be the mom or the dad is next to impossible; you just have to get in there and read the room. We’ll be doing a lot of that in Arkansas in the coming years.