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From the Dean

A Wider Reach for Data Science

Story by
Robert Stacey, Dean

The College of Arts and Sciences distinguishes itself through innovative courses and interdisciplinary research, including several projects highlighted in this issue of Perspectives. Our new Life Sciences Building — recently named 2018 Building of the Year by Seattle’s Daily Journal of Commerce — was designed with innovation in mind, encouraging students and faculty to collaborate, often across disciplinary boundaries.

Bob Stacey, Dean of Arts and Sciences

Another example of cross-disciplinary collaboration is the UW’s eScience Institute. Established ten years ago, the Institute promotes data science education at the UW, creates a community of data scientists on campus, and pushes the frontiers of data science research to make a positive impact on the world. It is a wonderful example of private funding and public investment coming together to meet the changing educational needs of our students. And in no other field of study have our students’ needs changed more rapidly or profoundly than with respect to data science. 

Ten years ago, visionaries could see the impact that analyses of extremely large data sets (“big data”) were having on research in the natural and social sciences.  And so, when the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, together with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, came to UW looking for university partners willing to work together in a collective experiment to build supportive institutional environments for data-intensive research, we jumped at the opportunity to further such an environment at the UW.

Three university partners — Berkeley, NYU, and UW — all received funding from the Moore and Sloan foundations, with the same goal: to build a data science environment and support data intensive discovery on campus. At about the same time, a National Science Foundation IGERT grant led to a coordinated, PhD-level data science specialization in six UW units, which quickly expanded to ten. We created a master’s program and undergraduate data science specializations tailored to meet discipline-specific needs. We are continuing to develop more of these options and working to expand our introductory course offerings, especially for students who do not intend to major in a science or technology field.

 This funding, if approved by the Legislature, will open this new world of data science, with its promise and pitfalls, to thousands more of our students.

Our strategy received important financial support from the Provost, who allocated funding to hire new faculty members who combine expertise in data methods with deep content-area knowledge.  Our efforts also received invaluable support from the Washington Research Foundation (WRF), which provided chairs, professorships, and start-up funds that enabled us to recruit outstanding data science faculty.  The WRF also funded construction of a new Data Science Studio as a physical hub for all of our data science programs.

With the support of Provost Mark Richards, we are asking the Legislature to join in these efforts by providing funding to enable us to expand significantly our introductory-level data science classes, with a special focus on making them accessible to students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. 

This is not a new idea. Through the Center for Statistics and the Social Sciences, the Department of Statistics, and the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology, the College of Arts and Sciences has long been a leader in developing and applying new statistical methods for social science research. Similarly, many of our arts and humanities students are already using big-data methods to create interactive artworks or to analyze texts. But this new funding, if approved by the Legislature, will open this new world of data science, with its promise and pitfalls, to thousands more of our students — one more way that we are preparing our students for a rapidly changing world.