By SUSAN JONES
If it were up to Bruce Childers, every undergraduate student at 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 Aug. 30.
The SCI community will celebrate this milestone through various events throughout the year, including speaker series, a Toast to SCI during homecoming weekend, and the 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 need, I believe, these computational skills and competencies; if not actual skill, at least a critical thinking about data,” said Childers, who moved from interim to permanent dean of the school earlier this year. “So when some media outlet publishes some study, they understand what went into that study and approach it with a critical mindset. I think that’s a really fundamental skill in today’s modern democracy. And I think Pitt should be prepared to provide that, and I think SCI can do that.”
The School of Computing and Information was born five years ago when the the School of Information Sciences, the Department of Computer Science and the Intelligent Systems Program came together to form the first new school at Pitt in more than 20 years.
“What the school has emerged to being — and we’ve been founded in and now we’re actually 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 long-standing structures that I guess other schools have had for decades are there for us to explore how to use them to create this transdisciplinary, collaborative environment,” he said.
Starting in fall 2017 with just 183 undergraduate students, the school has grown to be the fourth largest on campus, with 1,051 undergrads in fall 2021 (behind Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, Swanson School of Engineering and College of Business Administration). Final student census numbers aren’t out yet for this fall, but Childers expects that number to rise again.
Another bright spot is the master’s in library information science program, which has grown from 40 students in 2018 — when admission was paused to allow for a program redesign — to around 130 now. Childers said the redesign focused on creating partnerships with organizations that work directly with students, who study an information problem that the organization has, develop a solution, pilot it and then assess it.
Childers served as a special assistant to the provost for data science in 2019 and 2020 and helped form the Task Force on Data Science and write its report. Provost Ann Cudd is looking to hire someone in her office to provide a “unified, visible, coordinated presence” with respect to data science, both in 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 that literacy in data science these days is a really fundamental skill and competence for every student,” Cudd said in a recent interview. “Even if it’s more like data science appreciation, and being able to know what it is you can do with this so that you can seek out the kind of expertise that you need to help you get things done.”
Collaboration with other schools
One big growth area for SCI is in joint majors with other schools, which plays into Childers’ desire to connect students to computer and data science. For instance, SCI has partnered with the Dietrich School’s Department of English for an undergraduate degree in digital narrative interactive design.
“It combines coding with narrative. The way I think of it is using storytelling through data and through computation,” he said. “This could be in game design; it could be in data journalism. It could be as a data scientist and data analyst to tell the story through the data.”
The major has grown from around 19 students three years ago to about 130 this year, Childers said. “I don’t think any of us ever imagined this as an outcome. It’s very exciting outcome, and it’s been a phenomenal partnership with the Dietrich School. It’s just an incredibly positive way to work extremely collaboratively.”
Andrew Lotz, assistant dean in the Dietrich School, said he’s not surprised the program has been so popular. “That’s entirely because of great faculty in SCI and in English. They would sit down in meetings and say, ‘What’s this thing look like? What would it mean to be properly prepared in these two areas?’ And then they built it and did it.”
There’s also a joint major with the Department of Biological Sciences, which Childers said comprises mostly biology majors. A computational social science undergraduate major currently involves SCI’s informatics network systems department and political science in Dietrich, where Lotz teaches, but will probably expand to other departments, such as economics and history.
Another program has been proposed with physics and quantum computing, and SCI is working with Pitt Business on a minor track in the new School of Public Health undergraduate program.
A data science major launched last year is a partnership between three departments at SCI, plus mathematics and statistics in the Dietrich School. Lotz said “every single person the whole time was like, ‘Yeah, this makes good sense.’” It took some time to come together because of the various governance issues involved in a project involving that many departments.
“We love the programs,” Lotz said. “We have a couple other departments that we’ve talked to about it. … Any department that would ever want to approach us, if they have an idea, we’ll open the floor to it.”
In addition, the Ph.D. program in intelligence systems — an interdisciplinary program around artificial intelligence and applied settings — is “something that’s really grown in the last few years as other schools, particularly medicine and health sciences, become partners more closely,” Childers said.
Many of SCI’s master’s programs have seen enrollment challenges, Childers said, particularly during the pandemic. About 85 percent of those in the master’s programs were international students before the pandemic, he noted.
“The way in which we think about our master’s programs is something that’s evolving. We are beginning to put a lot more emphasis on workforce development at the master’s level for domestic populations and local and Pittsburgh populations,” he said.
For instance, an applied data-driven methods graduate certificate allows people with no prerequisites in data science to learn the basics all the way through to modeling, visualization and gaining insight out of data. It will allow people working in fields like marketing or human resources to gain these skills, and he hopes it will be a front door to them enrolling in a full master’s program.
SCI recently was among the Pitt units to receive funding through the Biden administration’s Build Back Better program. It will use the $800,000 to provide scholarships for dislocated workers from the 10 counties covered by the Allegheny Conference to earn the applied data- driven methods certificate, preparing them for data-centric occupations in the autonomous and applied robotics industry. The grant will provide tuition support for 16 students each year throughout four years.
The school also is using more informal ways to connect people with data science. Once a semester they offer an eight-week research computing education workshop on data basics. The non-credit class teaches about the Python programming language as well as about data cleaning, preparation and visualization. The workshop has been popular with faculty, staff and students, Childers said. The last session had about 200 people interested in the 60 spots available. He’s also interested in doing “data pop-up” sessions in the Cathedral of Learning to “do really cool things as students come and go with data.”
A new space
In addition to growing in programming and students, SCI is expanding physically this year.
Childers said they hope to start using the new space at 130 N. Bellefield St. in October. It’s 10,000 square feet, with around 19 offices, 20 student desks and a small presentation area that can be used for events and other activities.
“That space really goes back to the idea of SCI as a well-connected, collaborative entity,” he said. “It’s got a lot of technology in it that is designed around trying to create these hybrid spaces that we’ve learned about during the pandemic, to foster research and education collaborations.”
He said they’re going to try to use it as a “testbed of how we as a school can internally create a culture of this kind of collaboration and … how do we use technology to actually amplify our connections to the benefit of others.”
It also will be a testbed for a “hopefully future home” under one roof at the One Bigelow building that is part of Pitt’s 10-year campus master plan.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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