An Exciting Year Ahead for Data Science at UNC

August 22, 2022


Written by Ajay Gandecha

The upcoming 2022-2023 academic year will likely be amongst the most exciting and consequential years for the growth of data science at UNC. Between new programs, courses, and student and department-led events, students have greater access to explore data science than ever before and have the chance to integrate data science into their programs of study.

Interdisciplinary Data Science Minor

An extremely notable catalyst for the growth of interest in data science at UNC this year is the new Data Science minor. Initially announced at the start of Fall 2021, the Data Science minor is an interdisciplinary program within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. The minor allows students to explore and get involved in data science and connect data science back to their majors and other programs of study. 

The minor is also very flexible. Nearly all minors at UNC consist of just five courses. The Data Science minor is no different, requiring three core and two elective classes. Students may choose three core classes from a pre-audited list based on three tenants of data science understanding: Data and Computational Thinking, Data and Statistical Thinking, and Data, Culture, and Society. Amongst these are the ever-so-popular COMP 110: Introduction to Programming and Data Science, a course that includes over 600 students per semester.

Various data science-related courses can fulfill the other two electives. The great thing is that over 80 courses from 23 departments count as electives for the Data Science minor. Students adding the data science minor to their program of study will likely be able to take overlapping courses that fulfill requirements from both their major and the Data Science minor. In fact, the Data Science minor is so flexible that over 80 seniors last year were able to add, complete, and graduate with the minor in the Spring of 2022. 

There is already evidence that the Data Science minor has piqued a lot of interest. According to the UNC Historical Course Record Search, between the semester after UNC announced the Data Science minor and the semester previous, the number of students enrolled in STOR 120, a core class for the minor in the Data and Statistical Thinking group, more than doubled. Students part of the Data Science minor are also increasingly expressing interest in joining related student organizations on campus.

Creation of the UNC School of Data Science and Society

Perhaps the most exciting of all, in late March of 2022, UNC announced the creation of a new professional school – the UNC School of Data Science and Society. As a professional school, the School of Data Science and Society would operate as a separate entity from the College of Arts and Sciences, similar to the Kenan-Flagler Business School and the School of Information and Library Science. 

Upon its official launch in Fall 2022, the School of Data Science and Society will also offer undergraduate majors in Data Science, with the hopes of having their first graduating class in 2026. In June, Professor Ahalt from the UNC Computer Science department was named as the Dean of the school. Ahalt is also the director of RENCI, a data science laboratory that exists as a collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, and Duke Universities.

While the details surrounding the implementation of the School of Data Science and Society remain unspecified, there is no denying the impact that the creation of a professional school dedicated to Data Science would have on the Data Science community on campus. The school will excite and interest students in data science, bring students and faculty from across the country to UNC-Chapel Hill and serve as a central hub for data science resources, education, and research for years to come.

Perhaps due to the impending unveiling of the School of Data Science, investment and direction from the school itself, or just student interest, the number of data-science-related courses available to undergraduate students is greater than ever. Many popular courses, such as STOR 120, STOR 320, COMP 488, and upper-division STOR courses are in significant demand and have filled up quickly. Other departments also offer other courses, such as GEOG 215: Introduction to Spatial Data Science, for example, which are extremely popular and teach students interesting applications of data science. 

This year, many courses have also modified themselves to, at minimum, mention data science in their name. For example, ECON 400: Introduction To Statistics And Econometrics, was recently changed to ECON 400: Data Science and Econometrics. Of course, time will tell if such changes are more than merely cosmetic. A few semesters ago, COMP 110 also changed its name to include "Data Science," however, Professor Kris Jordan also modified the curriculum to expose students to some essential fundamental applications of the Python programming language to data science.

In addition, It is currently unknown whether or not the School of Data Science and Society will use courses currently existing in the College of Arts and Sciences as requirements or if they will develop their own courses. Regardless, the availability and interest in data science courses will only increase in the upcoming semesters.

Data Science Events and Organizations on Campus

UNC also has a sizable data science community. Most notably, Carolina Analytics and Data Science (CADS) is the campus's largest data science student organization. The upcoming year at CADS will certainly be consequential for both the growth of the organization but also the data science community as a whole. As Vice President of CADS this year, I am undoubtedly biased – however, CADS has extremely exciting workshops and collaborations planned for nearly every week of the semester. We are really looking forward to sharing these with the UNC data science community.

In addition, CADS will be hosting the Carolina Data Challenge (CDC) – an annual data science hackathon held on campus at UNC-Chapel Hill. Each year, CDC welcomes hundreds of curious students from various universities. This fall, CDC will return in-person on October 8th and 9th. CDC is beginner-friendly, and students of all levels of experience may attend. This year, CDC's theme is "Nature's Fury." Participants will explore this theme through 5 different tracks: Business, Natural Science, Social Science, Health Science, and Pop Culture. 

Between CADS workshops, the Carolina Data Challenge, and various other university and departmental events, students interested in data science will have dozens of exciting events to participate in over the semester and year. 

Final Thoughts

The 2022-2023 academic year will be the year for data science at UNC. Between the events, creation of the UNC SDSS, the Data Science minor gaining steam, and various student organizations hosting numerous workshops, social events, and hackathons, students from various backgrounds will all have the chance to dabble in the field of data science. 

It will be very exciting to watch the growth of the data science community at UNC over the next few semesters and years, and I am glad to be a part of it. If you are interested in data science too, feel free to look more into the DS minor, related courses, organizations, and events listed above, and let me know your thoughts about data science at UNC below!