Experts: Data Science and Analytics Skills Essential for Minority Students

By 2021, job candidates who possess skills in data science and analytics — or DSA — will be more than twice as likely to be hired as those who don’t.

That’s according to an April 2017 Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) report titled “Investing in America’s Data Science and Analytics Talent: The Case for Action.”

Dr. Brandeis Marshall, an associate professor and chair of computer and information sciences at Spelman College.

In addition, only about one out of every four university leaders can guarantee that their graduates will have DSA skills, the report states.

The situation is even more acute among underrepresented minority students; only 12 percent of university presidents and provosts agree that DSA courses attract more underrepresented minority students than other STEM courses, according to the report.

Dr. Brandeis Marshall, an associate professor and chair of computer and information sciences at Spelman College, is on a mission to turn those statistics around.

With a $480,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Marshall is leading a project to train faculty at Spelman and Morehouse College — two HBCUs in Atlanta — on how to make DSA a more prominent feature of their courses. The project also seeks to raise awareness of DSA among students who are underrepresented in the discipline at the undergraduate level in order to prepare them for graduate studies or corporate positions in data science.

Marshall says the project will ultimately benefit employers and students alike, and college is the place to start.

“I believe that data runs our world,” Marshall tells Diverse. “I cannot think of one discipline or field that does not collect, store, categorize, manipulate and process data for information management.”

She continues, “I truly believe that students and faculty want to know how to deal with data. Where to start is the hump we have to overcome.”

Higher education leaders are beginning to recognize the widespread application of DSA and infusing it into their institutions’ coursework in various fields.

For instance, Miami-Dade College President Dr. Eduardo Padrón stated at an education forum recently that data analytics shouldn’t be just for computer science majors.

“I really believe it applies everywhere,” Padrón told the forum.

He says that his administration has been working to make data analytics a requirement for every major and discipline at Miami-Dade — which is the largest community college in the nation.

“They’re gonna need it,” Padrón said of students graduating into today’s workforce.

Marshall is motivated by the same idea.

“DSA will undoubtedly be part of today’s undergraduate career path,” Marshall says. “Basic DSA skills can help students define problems, isolate information gaps and investigate solution paths.

“In the classroom, real-world problems can be examined and evaluated at a deeper level. Classrooms can become a better simulation of the workplace or graduate school.”

With that in mind, Marshall’s objective is to teach faculty to infuse DSA into the courses they teach.

Her project is a “targeted infusion project” funded through NSF’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP).

Marshall says the idea for her project grew out of her concern over the lack of ways to teach students to use technology on a deeper level.

“Today’s college student is comfortable with using technology, but not in the creation or maintenance of that hardware and software technology,” Marshall says. “Unfortunately, there are few intentional platforms that are designed to support data science instruction.”

Marshall’s project has the potential to soon reach hundreds of students — and even more in the future.

Her project comes at a time when what she refers to as an “explosion of data collection” is at play. This is outlined in an International Data Corporation report that estimates that some 40,000 exabytes of data will be collected in the world by 2020.

“The cascading effect is apparent,” Marshall says. “Positions requiring data science and ‘big data’ skills will increase faster than the skilled practitioners can be trained, resulting in an estimated 200,000 positions unfilled.”

But there’s a danger those jobs will not be filled by individuals from diverse backgrounds.

“The lack of diversity in data science is not only an employer problem, but also a national problem,” the BHEF report states. “The U.S. economy has much to gain by engaging more of its workers in high-demand occupations — and data science, along with computer services and engineering, represent fast-growth categories of higher-paying jobs.”

Marshall notes that data science skills impact multiple industries, such as finance and insurance, health care, information, real estate, retail and trade disciplines, management of companies, professional services and transportation and warehousing.

She says data science is represented in higher education as an “interdisciplinary discipline” that includes but is not limited to applied statistics, biology, business analytics, business intelligence, chemistry, computer science, data analytics, data mining and information management.

“As such, faculty and the students they instruct must apply mathematical and computational techniques to real-world problems involving large, complex data sets and be able to visualize, present and communicate analytical results,” Marshall says.

Through her targeted infusion project, over the course of two years, Marshall is training two groups of 10 faculty members at Spelman and Morehouse via year-long faculty development programs. Each program has a 10-day summer experience and seven monthly seminars during the academic year.

The programs will “increase data science knowledge and its relationship to other disciplines to undergraduate underrepresented minorities and faculty at both institutions,” Marshall says, referring to Spelman and Morehouse.

She explains that, by focusing on faculty development in addition to student awareness in data science, awareness can be broadened to include a wider range of undergraduates, such as computing majors and those who major in disciplines with computing cognates.

Indeed, the faculty in Marshall’s program will be enabled to create, infuse and deliver a “data science module” to their 500 collective students.

“These curricular materials could build upon the existing data science curriculum at the undergraduate level,” Marshall says. “This engagement will broaden awareness of data science to underrepresented minorities at both institutions and could prepare them for industry positions and/or graduate studies in data science.”

Marshall says the data science modules created through the program could be disseminated via open-access digital repositories, such as computingportal.org, or could be used to establish a platform for a data science minor for Spelman and Morehouse students.

Marshall sees potential for her model of teaching DSA to be adopted by other HBCUs. She speaks of a possible “data science multi-institutional alliance.” The alliance, she says, would “support the sustainability, dissemination and technology transfer plan for undergraduate, graduate and practitioner development.”

It’s too early to gauge the impact of Marshall’s project.

She says success will ultimately depend on how many faculty participants she reaches and the number of data science modules that get implemented as a result, among other things.

Other metrics include how many faculty and courses integrate data science modules, how many students attend career presentations, and how many internships students secure as a result.

Qualitative measures are being conducted through surveys, focus groups and observations, Marshall says.

“We intend to evaluate how faculty engage, adapt and integrate core data science concepts into their curriculum (and possibly research), how students’ knowledge of data science is impacted through infusion of a data science module and assess students’ awareness and interest in DSA careers,” Marshall says.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com

  • This story also appears in the June 15,2017 print edition of Diverse.

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