Two Valparaiso University professors are partnering with colleagues from Brown University and Smith College to advance the field of data science education, thanks to a $199,040 TRIPODS+X grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Valparaiso University will receive more than 50 percent of these funds and serve as the lead institution for the collaborative effort.

Titled “TRIPODS+EDU: Investigations of Student Difficulties in Data Science Instruction,” the research proposal is one of 19 collaborative projects supported by NSF. Along with their colleagues at Brown and Smith, Karl Schmitt, Ph.D., assistant professor of mathematics and statistics and director of Valpo’s data science program, and Ruth Wertz, Ph.D., assistant professor of general engineering, serve as principle investigators.

“The need to educate the next generation of policy makers, data science researchers, and global citizens has fueled rapid growth in data science curricula,” Professor Schmitt says. “This grant aims to identify student misconceptions about data science concepts along with mismatches between core curricular elements and early-career practitioners’ daily work. Ultimately, the outcomes of this grant will inform work on data science concept inventories to improve education and teaching.”

According to the proposal, initial data science teaching practices have been drawn from parent disciplines such as computer science and mathematics. As the need to extract meaning from data becomes increasingly necessary in myriad fields, this research will advance data science education to meet the needs of students and future professionals in this specific discipline.

“This grant is a wonderful opportunity for Valpo faculty members to collaborate with peers at partner institutions to work toward the common goal of advancing teaching and learning in the rapidly growing field of data science,” says Mark L. Biermann, Ph.D., provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “The particular focus of this research demonstrates the learning- and student-first mentality, and the genuine care for and dedication to undergraduate students that is embedded in who we are as a University at Valpo.”

In addition to identifying student misconceptions and gaps in curricula, the research team, which will include Valpo students, will survey current data scientists at E-Trade, Pandora, Google, and other leading companies, ensuring that the research project will incorporate cutting-edge technical topics and current workforce demands.

This is one of four TRIPODS+X projects within the education track, designed to launch pilot efforts to drive workforce development in multiple disciplines and at multiple education levels.

“TRIPODS+X is exciting not only for its near-term impact addressing some of society’s most important scientific challenges, but because of its potential for developing tools for future applications,” says Anne Kinney, NSF assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences.

The TRIPODS institutes align with Harnessing the Data Revolution, one of the 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments, which aims to engage NSF’s grantee community in the pursuit of fundamental research in data science and engineering; the development of a cohesive, federated, national-scale approach to research data infrastructure; and the development of a 21st-century data-capable workforce.

“The multidisciplinary approach for addressing the increasing volume and complexity of data enabled through the TRIPODS+X projects will have a profound impact on the field of data science and its use,” says Jim Kurose, NSF assistant director for computer and information science and engineering. “This impact will be sure to grow as data continues to drive scientific discovery and innovation.”