Through SUSAN JONES
If Bruce Childers had his way, every student in Pitt would have a connection to the School of Computing and Information.
The School of Computing and Information kicked off its fifth anniversary year with an event on August 30th.
The SCI community will celebrate this milestone with a variety of events throughout the year, including speaker series, a toast to SCI during Homecoming weekend, and Big Bash Weekend, the anniversary’s signature event scheduled for Spring 2023.
Learn more about this celebration at sci.pitt.edu/5th-year.
“Students today, I think, need these numeracy skills and competencies; if not real skills, then at least critical thinking about data,” said Childers, who transitioned from interim to permanent dean of the school earlier this year. “So when a media company publishes a study, they understand what went into that study and are critical of it. I think that’s a really fundamental skill in today’s modern democracy. And I think Pitt should be ready to provide that, and I think SCI can do that.”
The School of Computing and Information was founded five years ago when the School of Information Sciences, the Department of Computer Science and the Intelligent Systems Program came together to create Pitt’s first new school in more than 20 years.
“What the school has become – and we were formed and actually now we’re seeing that – is this highly collaborative, highly connected, the word I like to use is ‘transdisciplinary’ school,” Childers said.
“One of the wonderful things about being a young school is these longstanding structures that other schools have had for decades so we can explore how we can use them to create this transdisciplinary, collaborative environment,” he said.
The school, which began in the fall of 2017 with just 183 undergraduate students, has grown to be the fourth-largest on campus (behind the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, the Swanson School of Engineering and the College of Business Administration) with 1,051 students as of fall 2021 ). The final student census numbers for this fall are not yet known, but Childers expects that number to rise again.
Another bright spot is the Library Informatics Master’s program, which has grown from 40 students in 2018 – when admissions was suspended to allow for a program redesign – to around 130 now. According to Childers, the redesign focused on creating partnerships with organizations working directly with students investigating an organization’s information problem, developing a solution, testing, and then evaluating.
Childers served as Special Assistant to the Provost for Data Science in 2019 and 2020 and helped form the Task Force on Data Science and produce its report. Provost Ann Cudd is seeking someone in her office to provide a “unified, visible, and coordinated presence” related to data science in both teaching and research. Cudd said they want to build on the momentum of the Data Science Task Force report in 2020 and last year’s Year of Data and Society.
“I think data science proficiency is a really foundational skill and competency for any student these days,” Cudd said in a recent interview. “Although it’s more about appreciating data science and knowing what to do with it so you can look for the kind of expertise you need to get the job done.”
cooperation with other schools
A big area of growth for SCI is shared majors with other schools, which fits Childers’ desire to connect students with computer and data science. For example, SCI has partnered with the Dietrich School’s Department of English for a bachelor’s degree in digital narrative interactive design.
“It combines coding with narrative. The way I think about it is storytelling through data and through computation,” he said. “That could be in the game design; it could be in data journalism. It could be a data scientist and data analyst to tell the story through the data.”
The major has grown from about 19 students three years ago to about 130 this year, Childers said. “I don’t think any of us ever envisioned that as an outcome. It’s a very exciting result and it’s been a phenomenal partnership with The Dietrich School. It’s just an incredibly positive way to be extremely collaborative.”
Andrew Lotz, Associate Dean of The Dietrich School, said he wasn’t surprised the program was so popular. “This is entirely due to the great faculty in SCI and English. They would sit down in meetings and say, ‘What does that thing look like? What would it mean to be properly prepared in those two areas?’ And then they built it and did it.”
There’s also a common major with the Department of Biological Sciences, which Childers says mostly includes biology majors. A bachelor’s degree in Computational Social Science currently includes the Department of Computer Network Systems and Political Science in Dietrich, where Lotz teaches, but will likely expand to other departments such as economics and history.
Another program involving physics and quantum computing has been proposed and SCI is working with Pitt Business on a smaller course in the School of Public Health’s new undergraduate program.
A data science major introduced last year is a partnership between three departments at SCI and mathematics and statistics at the Dietrich School. Lotz said, “Every single person was like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense the whole time.'” It took us some time to get together because there were various governance issues on a project that involved so many departments.
“We love the programs,” Lotz said. “We have a couple of other departments that we spoke to about this. … Any department that ever wants to approach us, if they have an idea, we’ll give them the floor.”
In addition, the Ph.D. The program in Intelligence Systems — an interdisciplinary program centered around artificial intelligence and applied attitudes — is “something that’s really grown in recent years as other schools, particularly medicine and health sciences, have become closer partners,” Childers said.
Many of SCI’s master’s programs have faced enrollment issues, Childers said, particularly during the pandemic. About 85 percent of the students in the master’s programs were international students before the pandemic, he noted.
“The way we think about our masters programs is something that is evolving. We’re starting to put a lot more emphasis on staff development at the master’s level for the domestic population and the local and Pittsburgh population,” he said.
For example, a graduate certificate in applied data-driven methods allows people with no prior knowledge of data science to learn the basics right through to modeling, visualizing, and extracting insights from data. It will allow people working in areas such as marketing or human resources to acquire these skills and he hopes it will be an entry point for them to enroll in a full master’s program.
SCI was recently among Pitt entities to receive funding through the Biden administration’s Build Back Better program. It will use the $800,000 to provide scholarships for uprooted workers from the 10 countries covered by the Allegheny conference to earn the applied data-driven methods certificate and prepare them for data-centric careers in the autonomous and applied robotics industries. The scholarship will provide tuition for 16 students each year for four years.
The school also uses more informal avenues to engage people with data science. Once a semester they offer an eight-week research informatics training workshop on basic data. The non-credit class teaches about the Python programming language and data cleaning, preparation and visualization. The workshop has been popular with faculty, staff and students, Childers said. At the last meeting, around 200 people were interested in the 60 places available. He’s also interested in hosting “data pop-up” sessions at the Cathedral of Learning to “do really cool things as students come and go with data.”
A new room
In addition to growth in programming and students, SCI is also expanding physically this year.
Childers said they hope to begin using the new space at 130 N. Bellefield St. in October. It is 10,000 square meters with around 19 offices, 20 student desks and a small presentation area that can be used for events and other activities.
“This space really taps into the idea of SCI as a well-connected, collaborative entity,” he said. “It contains a lot of technology designed to create those hybrid spaces that we’ve learned about during the pandemic to foster research and education collaborations.”
He said they will try to use it as a “test bed for how we as a school can create a culture of this kind of collaboration internally and … how we use technology to actually amplify our connections for the benefit of others.”
It will also be a testbed for a “hopefully future home” under one roof in the One Bigelow building, part of Pitt’s 10-year campus master plan.
Susan Jones is Editor of the University Times. Reach them below firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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