Data science is a field with high demand and bright job prospects. Glassdoor ranks Data Scientist as number two on its list of 50 Best Jobs in America for 2021. But people of color are woefully underrepresented in the field.

Now, a consortium of Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is working to close that gap by banding together to share information, ideas, and resources.

The HBCU Data Science Consortium is comprised of six HBCUs: Florida A&M in Tallahassee (FAMU), Morehouse College in Atlanta, Bowie State University in Baltimore, Alabama A&M in Huntsville, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, and Norfolk State in Virginia.

Jason Black, associate professor, FAMU School of Business and Industry (Photo: FAMU)

“So, we know, from the data, that under-represented students are heavily at a disadvantage as it relates to participating in any of the computer science areas. But then when you start talking about data science, that number gets even smaller,” says co-lead Jason Black, Ph.D., associate professor in the FAMU School of Business and Industry.

“So specifically, African-Americans make up about four to five percent of the field of computer science. And when you start talking about data scientist, it’s a much smaller percentage than that. So, we are looking to increase diversity in the area of data science in particular.”

NSF Seeds Data Science Education at HBCUs

The consortium is funded by a $100,000 seed grant from the National Science Foundation-funded South Big Data Hub (SBDH). One of four geographically located hubs though the country, the SBDH is made up of multiple institutions in the southeast as well as industry partners and research labs with the goal of promoting big data.

“The goal of the consortium is to bring together, at least initially, individuals at HBCUs that are interested in trying to either create educational programs around data science, or to get involved in the research, or to collaborate with other partners, as well as external industry partners, all around the idea of data analytics, data science, business analytics,” Black tells WorkingNation.

“A lot of the HBCUs have these ideas to build these programs out or to get involved in research. But many times, due to geographic locations or due to resources, many of the HBCUs are operating in a silo. So, what we’re discovering is that oftentimes we’re duplicating efforts, or we are looking for resources that we can’t find, or we’re having difficulty connecting with industry partners and research partners.

“While at the same time, some HBCUs have very well-established, long established partners that could be a benefit to other schools. So, the whole idea is to bring us all together so that we can feed off of the strength of each other. And that would help not only populate the field of data science with a much higher number of underrepresented individuals, but to also strengthen the programs and the efforts that are being built at the HBCUs in general. So that’s the major impact that we’re looking to have.”

Getting the Ideas Flowing

The consortium is holding a series of workshops over the next year to build out the partnership, beginning with an inaugural virtual workshop February 19th and 20th..

“The goal of the workshop is to bring together people specifically at HBCUs to get the conversations going around what HBCUs are currently doing, as it relates to data science, what they need, if they’re looking for resources or assistance. And to connect them with sources of funding, as well as potential research and industry partners,” notes Black.

“Also, as part of the inaugural workshop, we will have a series of seed grants that people can apply for. Small $10,000 awards that people can apply for. And once you’re awarded those awards, you spend the remainder of the year working on that idea.”

Throughout the rest of the year, the consortium will hold monthly workshops hosting speakers from all sectors of the data science world.

“They can talk about what they’re working on at their schools or at their industry locations or research labs. They can present research topics. They can discuss projects that they have participated in, or that are available for people who are wishing to apply.”

The monthly workshop series is open to anybody who is interested in data science, whether they are at a HBCU or not.

At the end of the grant cycle in January of 2022, there will be a closing ceremony.

“We’ll have a networking fair for students to get hired, or to get internships. We’ll have speakers. We’ll have presentations from the people who won the seed grants to present their work and to share best practices. And we’ll also begin working on the processes of sustaining the grant.”

Data Innovation Focused on the Southern States

The HBCU Data Science Consortium secured the grant money because it fits with the goals of the South Big Data Hub, according to SBDH executive director Dr. Renata Rawlings-Goss.

Renata Rawlings Goss, executive director, South Big Data Hub (Photo: SBDH)

“Our mission is to reduce the barriers for data innovation across the Southern states, which are Delaware through Texas for us. And we are a mix organization of members and partners as well as academic institutions. We started a Seed Grant Program for participants in the South to apply as groups, to do work that’s in that mission of being able to collaborate, share best practices, scope curriculum, and outcomes, really working with either industry or government as part of our purview as well.

“In this case, the HBCU Consortium falls right into that model where it is bringing together a group around data science in this space, and how they can, as a consortium, work synergistically, as well as bring in partners to a more cohesive group. So, we saw this as a great opportunity of community building and leveraging resources across our region.”

HBCUs are a target population for the SBDH as 90% of them are in the south, says Rawlings-Goss.

“One of the things that we talk about is that HBCUs really take up 3 percent of the colleges and universities, but they make up 25 percent of the African-American diversity in STEM fields. So that’s another reason why we focused on HBCUs. And our funding committee funded this project specifically because we see it as a way to diversify, broaden and deepen that available talent in the U.S. and in the South, particularly, but I think in the country as a whole.”

Rawlings-Goss sees the consortium as a touch point allowing for greater engagement with the HBCU community in general.

“We really consider all of our seed grants as partners in the mission to expand data innovation. And so, we work with them. It’s a little non-traditional. It’s not just a grant where we give it and walk away. We do work with them to really tie in a lot of the learnings from our other programs into these initiatives as well. So, I see that as a real benefit. And a benefit to cross talk with, even some of our research initiatives, and even internships and fellowships that we host with different areas to be able to provide students with that real-world direct connection to workforce.”.

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