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Interim Chancellor’s Message: New data science program leading the way to a sustainable future

The program is part of a statewide project funded by the National Science Foundation, which awarded the UH System $20 million last year to do a five-year study of water sustainability issues throughout the state.

By Marcia Sakai.

I am pleased to share an update on the exciting new data science degree program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. The program is multidisciplinary in scope with elements of geophysics, microbiology, cyberinfrastructure, data modeling, indigenous knowledge, and economic forecasting. Students will learn how big data sets, from seemingly unrelated areas, can be used to solve complex problems.

Data science is a field that can have great impact on our local communities and environment. The collection and analysis of big data in areas such as water resources, for example, can reveal patterns and trends that can alert decision makers such as lawmakers and policymakers about the directions needed to ensure future stability for our island and state. This is especially important in relation to human behavior—for example, analyzing statewide water resources can reveal things our communities can do better to use and conserve water more efficiently.

‘Ike Wai

The UH Hilo data science program is part of a statewide project funded by the National Science Foundation, which awarded the UH System $20 million last year to do a five-year study of water sustainability issues throughout the state. The project is called ʻIke Wai (Knowledge, Water) and has the overall goal of gathering new data on groundwater flow, sustainable yield, and economic impact. The data will help communities and state decision makers preserve Hawaiʻi’s water resources for the future.

Travis Mandel

Four tenure-track professors will lead the UH Hilo program. The first two were hired over the summer: Travis Mandel, assistant professor of computer science and Grady Weyenberg (who grew up in Hilo), assistant professor of mathematics and statistician. They will be joined in the near future by the others in the natural and social sciences.

While developing the UH Hilo data science program, our faculty team will work with ‘Ike Wai data scientists and water researchers around the state, collaborating alongside local communities, indigenous peoples, government agencies and businesses to generate the scientific data. Partners also include undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs and junior faculty to address water challenges at the academic and policy level.

‘Ike Wai student scholars

Grady Weyenberg
Grady Weyenberg

As part of our program, a cohort of ‘Ike Wai student scholars will be chosen each year to do research and analyze the data collected (this year’s scholars are currently being chosen). The scholars will work with six faculty across natural science fields on research projects including investigation of local flora and fauna, genetics, and improving educational software. This is an invaluable training ground for our students, and when they graduate, they will have the background and skills needed to start professional careers in related fields. This is of immense benefit to our local communities and state.

Developing curriculum

Since Travis and Grady’s arrival, they have been hard at work on the process of getting approval for a certificate program in data science, which will be followed by a baccalaureate degree.

Meanwhile, proposals have been submitted to launch four new courses: three in computer science and one in math, which will form the core curriculum. Two of these courses will focus on computer programming and language, statistical techniques, and data plotting.

Grady is primarily involved in the development of the math course with focus on computing language and statistics, which will be attractive not only to students who are earning a data science certificate, but also to anyone in a natural science program (or even beyond) who needs an introduction to applied data analysis techniques. Target date to launch the new course is fall of 2018.

Travis is the new data science hire in computer science. He is also working on the design of the certificate and its courses, proposing a new course on cutting-edge machine learning techniques that will take students to the “next level” of data analysis. His research interests lie in the realm of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Specifically, he is interested in how we can use data to automatically improve human-focused systems.

While the university is developing curriculum, we also need to ensure that students are getting a good background in specialized techniques that will be useful for local industries, such as renewable energy and agriculture. It will be this practical application that will make the biggest impact on our local communities and economy.

Outreach

Faculty have recently begun reaching out to local schools and businesses, with the intent to ensure that a smooth transition can be created from secondary education to the university and through the data science program to the workplace. It will be wonderful to see high school students exposed to some of the interesting problems that can be addressed with data science before they get to the college level.

The development of the data science initiative makes us very proud of our campus—we are educating our students to be the problem solvers of our state’s future while helping to protect and conserve the islands’ precious natural resources.

Visit the EPSCoR website to learn more about the data science program and the ‘Ike Wai project.

See also: UH Hilo developing new data science program (UH Hilo Stories, Oct. 31, 2017).

Aloha,

Marcia Sakai

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