The School of Data Science and Society is gaining momentum

After years of planning by hundreds of faculty and administrators across campus, the Karolinska School for Data and Society (SDSS) is in full swing.

The school’s first dean, Stan Ahalt, former director of the Renaissance Computing Institute, worked tirelessly with the implementation leadership team. They are planning a formal presentation later this semester.

“The School of Data Science and Society will harness the talents of world-class faculty across disciplines and focus on the fundamentals and applications of data science to improve lives in North Carolina and around the world,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Huskevich. “The new school will also prepare students for the changing work environment and help attract and retain competitive employers in our state.”

On Sept. 12, Huskevich joined Ahalt for an extensive public discussion about the school’s expectations and future plans at the UNC CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio. Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Penny Gordon-Larsen and Associate Professor of Art History Catherine Desplanck also answered questions from Ahalt. The event was part of the popular Carolina Data Science Now series, co-sponsored by the new school and RENCI to highlight data science research across disciplines.

“I like the ‘and society’ at the end of the school’s name,” Huskevich said when Ahalt asked about his expectations for the school. “We’re going to bring a social science, a human dimension to the school, not just collecting data, analyzing it, interpreting data, but (looking at) how society uses that data to make informed decisions.”

During the event, Akhalt and guests discussed how the school will address the growing need for data literacy across industries and research fields, including by hiring faculty with diverse research backgrounds, building relationships with relevant industry partners, teaching effective data science methods, and building a curriculum that which addresses important topics such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, data privacy, and ethics.

And they talked a lot about the school’s role in facilitating the exchange of data between experts in the university’s many research centers and institutes.

“Data is really the language of collaboration,” said Gordon-Larsen.

Creation of a new school

Gordon-Larsen’s point about the shared nature of data science resonated with those present on September 12 for a reason. During the decade or so of planning leading up to this point, collaboration was the guiding principle. The school’s interdisciplinary approach will be reflected in a university-wide advisory board to be named later this fall.

Other next steps include:

  • Construction of educational activities, starting with the curriculum.
  • Establishing faculty matters such as guidelines for hiring new faculty, establishing joint appointments, promotion, and tenure.
  • Focusing on implementing faculty-developed approaches and applying data science to address societal problems and policy issues at the state and national levels.
  • Enrollment of students and hiring of staff and teachers.

Over the next few months, Ahalt and the implementation team—RENCI’s Jay Aykat, Carolina geneticist Terry Magnuson, and administrator Anna Rose Medley—will identify research clusters based on the subject areas the school will focus on. Initially, this might mean three to five research clusters, all interdisciplinary, involving people from different schools, focused on the main challenge to be solved.

The implementation team views curriculum development as one of the group’s most important goals. They are good at designing an online master’s program. The college minor, introduced in fall 2021, has proven extremely popular, attracting more than 500 students in its first year. And the team is working toward Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in collaboration with the college and other schools.

Implementation team members and Ahalt welcome interaction with faculty, staff and students who have questions about the school’s next steps and how they can get involved. Email [email protected] with questions, comments, or suggestions.

The implementation team plans the first three years as the initial phase — hiring faculty and staff and launching degree programs — to bring the school to a sustainable state in five to seven years. The usual location will appear later.

The school’s leadership team is in the process of creating an infrastructure to support curriculum, academic and faculty affairs, student enrollment, and student mentoring. In addition, discussions are underway with units across campus to develop a strategic roadmap to promote data literacy, research and data-related learning across the university.

“The collective expertise we need already exists on this campus. SDSS will build on this pool of expertise and become a hub for collaboration,” said Ahalt. “Carolina is a unique institution that practices the credo of collaboration between disciplines. We will focus on the science, methods and technologies that underpin data science, as well as programs that have an impact on society.”

Based on the interest currently being shown by faculty, staff and students, the School of Data and Society will be a welcome addition to the University.

What Data Science will mean for you – at a glance

What: SDSS Distinguished Speaker Series with Dr. Phil Bourne, Founding Dean of the School of Data Sciences at the University of Virginia (seminar open to the public, reception to follow)
When: Wednesday, September 28 at 12:20 p.m
Where: Kerr Hall, Room 2001

Data science is transformative—it’s easy to do if you’ve worked in academia for a few years. Nevertheless, the digital transformation of society cannot be denied. Academic data science initiatives across the country are responding and driving transformation through new internships, innovative research, and local community action. As UNC launches its new School of Data Science and Societies, we’ll spend time reflecting on the age-old question: What’s in it for me?

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