William & Mary is exploring the possibility of creating a new academic unit in computer science and data science, Provost Peggy Agouris told Visitors Committee members Thursday.
The effort stems from increased student interest in applied science, computer science and data science at William & Mary and a commitment by the university in its strategic plan to meet the anticipated needs of the Virginia workforce.
To accommodate expected growth, Agouris has formed an exploratory design team with representatives from all five W&M schools, while three core departments work to develop a model for the proposed academic unit, which could potentially be a separate school.
“It is crucial to assess how best to organize these growing entities, as this can have serious implications for our ability to allocate resources to the training that W&M offers across disciplines and to attract and grow important partnerships,” said Agouris, the presented the efforts during the Visitor’s Academic Affairs Committee meeting at the W&M Alumni House. “The right organizational structure can redefine our value in computing and data. It can foster important relationships at the state and federal levels, with other institutions, with friends and donors, and with like-minded organizations that could be new partners for us. I hope it deepens our strengths and broadens our horizons.”
The university has seen an explosion of interest in computer science in recent years, and computer skills are increasingly being used in other disciplines. In the last 10 years, interest in computational 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).
Growth in these areas reflects an overall increase in student interest in STEM subjects at W&M. From 2011 to 2022, the number of graduates in STEM subjects at W&M more than doubled and grew 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 science program, which only started in 2020, the number of degrees awarded increased from eight in 2021 to 35 in 2022.
At the same time, data has become increasingly important for the university as a whole. With data as one of the four initiatives outlined in the Vision 2026 strategic plan, William & Mary is committed to increasing its “presence and impact in computing and data science … in line with Virginia student and workforce needs “ to expand.
“This school represents an opportunity to boldly lead the William & Mary community in new directions, to serve new groups of students, and to showcase the incredible talent of our teachers and researchers to new national and international audiences,” said Dan Runfola, Assistant Professor of Applied Sciences sciences . “By integrating our computing activities into a new entity, we recognize the unique challenges and opportunities presented by these rapidly evolving fields and gain the ability to respond quickly to new opportunities without compromising our ability to provide world-class education in the field of computer science offering liberal arts.”
Formal discussions about a possible computer science and data science unit at W&M began in spring 2022 and evolved organically, Agouris said, with faculty members initially pitching the idea. After an ad hoc design team was formed with representatives from the university’s arts and sciences, business, education, law and marine sciences departments to explore the possibilities, its members began conducting research into similar structures at other universities and the Considering what might make sense for William & Co. Maria.
Faculty leaders from the Departments of Computer Science, Applied Sciences and the Data Science program are now working to design 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 finalized in the spring, with a goal of submitting them to the Board of Visitors and the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia in the fall of 2023.
The exploratory effort is part of William & Mary’s ongoing work to expand its offering in computer science as career opportunities and student interest grow.
Currently, the university offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs in computer science as well as a computer science minor. In 2020, W&M began offering a bachelor’s degree in data science and subsequently 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 PhD program that also offers a data science concentration. Applied science also offers an undergraduate minor and master’s degree programs.
Increasing the number of students with data science and computational skills is also a priority for 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 expand this “tech talent pipeline.”
While preparing interested students to enter this pipeline is one of the key drivers for exploring a new computing and data science unit at W&M, Agouris said everything is still in the early stages and the university is doing its due diligence to see , which might be the best choice for university.
“We want to ensure that this makes sense for our university based on the growth we are experiencing, the demands that come with it and also what we are hearing from our academic community,” Agouris said.
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