William & Mary is exploring the possibility of creating a new academic unit in computing and data science, Provost Peggy Aguris told members of the Board of Visitors on Thursday.
These efforts are the result of growing student interest in applied science, computer science and data science at William & Mary, as well as the university’s commitment in its strategic plan to support Virginia’s anticipated workforce needs.
To accommodate the expected growth, Aguris has formed a design research team with representatives from all five W&M schools, and three major departments are working on a model for the proposed academic unit, which could potentially be a school of its own.
“It is important to evaluate how best to organize these growing divisions, as this could have major implications for our ability to provide resources for the education that W&M offers across disciplines, and to attract and expand key partnerships,” said Aguris, who presented the effort during academic affairs board of visitors committee meeting in the W&M Alumni House. “The right organizational structure can redefine our value in the computing and data space. This can foster important relationships at the state and federal levels, with other institutions, friends and donors, and with like-minded organizations that can become new partners for us. I hope it will strengthen our strengths and broaden our horizons.”
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in computing at university, and computing skills are increasingly being used in other disciplines as well. Over the past 10 years, interest in computing fields at W&M has more than tripled, from 211 declared majors in just two fields (computer science and mathematics) to 738 in six (computer science, data science, mathematics, computational and applied mathematics and statistics, business analytics – data science and business analytics – supply chain).
The growth in these fields reflects an overall increase in student interest in STEM fields at W&M. From 2011 to 2022, the number of STEM graduates at W&M more than doubled, from 284 to 693. Looking at just the last two years, the number of computer science degrees awarded by the university increased from 78 to 93. in the Data program Science, which just started in 2020, has seen the number of degrees awarded increase from eight in 2021 to 35 in 2022.
At the same time, data is becoming increasingly important to the university as a whole. With data as one of four initiatives outlined in the Vision 2026 strategic plan, William & Mary has committed to expanding its “presence and impact in the computing and data sciences … in line with student demand and the needs of Virginia’s workforce.”
“This school provides an opportunity to boldly grow the William & Mary community in new directions, serve new students, and showcase the incredible talent of our faculty and researchers to new domestic and international audiences,” said Dan Runfola, associate professor of applied sciences. . “By integrating our computing operations into the new division, we recognize the unique challenges and opportunities these fast-growing industries present and gain the ability to nimbly respond to new opportunities without compromising our ability to offer a world-class liberal arts education.”
Formal discussions of a possible division of computing and data science at W&M began in the spring of 2022 and developed organically, Aguris said, with the idea initially being floated by faculty. After an ad hoc design team from university arts and sciences, business, education, law and marine science was formed to explore the possibilities, its members began researching similar structures at other universities and considering what might make sense for William & Mary.
The heads of the Department of Computer Science, Applied Science, and the Data Science Program are currently working on developing a model based on this research. This semester, the model will be refined as feedback is received from various stakeholders, including the Faculty Assembly.
The model and action plan are expected to be completed in the spring for submission to the Board of Visitors and the Virginia State Board of Higher Education in the fall of 2023.
The research effort is part of William & Mary’s ongoing effort to expand its computer science offerings as career opportunities and student interest grow.
The university currently offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in computer science, as well as a minor in computer science. In 2020, W&M began offering a bachelor’s degree in data science and later created the popular Jump Start Data Science summer program, which can lead to an accelerated minor. The Department of Applied Sciences has a well-established doctoral program that also offers a data science concentration. Applied Science also offers undergraduate minors and master’s options.
Increasing the number of students with data science and computing skills is also a focus of the federal and state governments. In 2019, the university joined the Commonwealth’s Tech Talent initiative, which aims to increase the number of Virginians with computer science-related degrees. The Tech Talent Investment Program provides funding to participating Virginia universities and colleges to help expand this “tech talent pipeline.”
While preparing interested students to enter this pipeline is one of the key drivers behind W&M’s new computing and data science division, Aguris said it’s still in the early stages and that the university is paying close attention to see , which may be the best fit for the university.
“We want to make sure it makes sense for our university based on the growth we’re experiencing, the demands that come with it, and what we’re hearing from our academic community,” Aguris said.
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