While data science is typically viewed as a STEM field, first-year and undergraduate learning assistant Ethan Delves sees art within the numbers.
"It deals with our perceptions of the world, which inherently comes with an ethical angle and a practical angle," Delves said. "I kind of think of it almost like a vision company, or someone who's making glasses. There's an art to helping people see things properly and see things as accurately as they can."
After years of student interest, UNC has decided to open the School of Data Science and Society, which is projected to fully launch in fall 2022.
The new addition plans to unite current data science research and resources at UNC to give students an opportunity to pursue a degree in data science.
“Over the years, we’ve had lots of students asking for undergraduate and master's programs in data science,” Jay Aikat, computer science research associate professor, said. “And some of them have actually been putting courses together across computer science and STOR and other disciplines trying to make up their own sort of degrees as they’re going, so this is in really high demand from the students.”
Aikat, alongside Joe Canady, assistant dean of finance in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, spearheaded plans for the school starting two years ago, at the request of then-Provost Bob Blouin.
According to UNC, Aikat has served on almost every committee for establishing the school.
Current Provost Chris Clemens was also a part of the faculty planning committees, and is working to help launch the school.
He said that the University has strengths in data science throughout its curriculum, but is still lacking in some areas.
“We don’t have an integrated curriculum. We have courses that sometimes fit together," Clemens said. "So, what the school will be able to do is make an integrated course of study that both connects to the applications of data science in the college or in the school of public health, but also gives a degree in data science.”
Despite the lack of an official school, there are already groups across campus participating in research concerning data science, Aikat said.
One of those research groups is the Renaissance Computing Institute, for which Aikat serves as chief operating officer. The institute is a laboratory aimed at advancing data science research and using it for the public good.
Data@Carolina is another large initiative promoting school-wide data literacy and connecting interested community members with resources.
Though the groups have been successful, the school will serve as a central place to bring students and researchers together for a larger collaboration, Aikat said.
"Whether you’re talking about degree programs or whether you're talking about research, think of the school as a hub," she said. "Because in many ways, you can’t have just degree programs or research in data science, you also have them in conjunction with other disciplines.”
Though the School of Data Science and Society's main focus will be data science and collection, it will also expand to more horizons, Clemens said.
He added that the “society” in the name references some of the other areas the school will cover.
Courses will teach the societal applications of data science — from applied research to specific industries — while also exploring questions about how data science impacts society.
“What are the ethics of collecting so much data?” Clemens said. “And how does it intersect with our society and our values? And that's going to be a large part of this school.”
He said that the inclusion of "society" in the name is important because students need the skills to understand both data about society and the ethics around data collection.
"Part of the art that I think Chapel Hill could really sort of harp on is developing thinkers that know how to determine what's fair, what's accurate, what's equitable in any given situation," Delves said. "And make sure that the way we're seeing the world and the way we're interpreting the world through our data information, our representations of that data, match those perceptions of accuracy."
Aikat said the University's strengths in STEM fields will make this new school an especially powerful resource.
"If we do this right, we could really set ourselves apart in how we define data science and society at Carolina," Aikat said. "We could be a world leader.”
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