Computer Science Professor Leads Data Science & Social Justice Research

Posted September 05, 2023, 12:57PM

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) is leading the effort to study the effectiveness of using data science for social justice as a tool to broaden participation of historically marginalized communities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). In 2023, NCCU received four federal grants to investigate this. This effort is led by Ravanasamudram Uma, Ph.D., a professor of computer science in the department of mathematics and physics, and her collaborators.

Uma is perhaps most excited about a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to encourage non-computing majors to earn a certificate in data analytics. In addition to the certificate, the participating students will also be able to earn digital badges for the individual data science skills acquired which they can display in their professional social networks to improve their employability. This is a collaborative grant with two other public historically Black colleges and universities in North Carolina: Fayetteville State University and Winston-Salem State University.

For this grant, Uma and her collaborators will work closely with students from non-computing majors; at NCCU, these include criminal justice, nutrition and dietetics, and art.

The grant grew out of a smaller effort, also funded by NSF from 2019 – 2023, where students in select sections of the First Year Seminar course (UNIV1100) used data science to advance their social justice projects, with an aim to getting more students interested in STEM in general and data science in particular.

“We then decided to broaden participation to non-STEM disciplines where there are a large number of minority populations,” Uma said. “It’s more challenging to get students into STEM disciplines. Instead of attracting those students to [STEM], we decided to take the program to those disciplines.”

As lead principal investigator for the collaborative $2 million grant, Uma will work with Alade Tokuta. Ph.D., NCCU professor of mathematics and physics; Debzani Deb, Ph.D., Endowed Professor of Computer Science/Founding Director, Center for Applied Data Science (CADS), and her team from Winston-Salem State University; Sambit Bhattacharya, Ph.D., director of the Intelligent Systems Lab, and his team from Fayetteville State University; and educational and social science researchers, Adrienne Smith and Rebecca Zulli Lowe, both of Cynosure Consulting.

Additionally, at NCCU, Jessica Davis-Ganao, Ph.D., criminal justice department chair and associate professor; Jason O’Briant, Ph.D., director of the didactic program in dietetics; and Kwame Hawkins, M.F.A., associate professor of art, will work closely with the team in implementing the data analytics certificate program in their respective disciplines.

A second grant from the NSF, a three-year grant for about $350,000, aims to increase participation of students from historically marginalized communities in environmental sciences, the least diverse of the STEM fields.

“Why? One of the reasons cited is non-inclusive culture, and one solution suggested was to connect what the students are experiencing in real-life with their curriculum,” Uma said. “We try to present the problems that are of importance to them in that domain so they become interested in solving them. That way, we hope to increase their representation in the field.”

Students in the environmental science course (ENSC1000), which attracts both science and non-science majors, will take part. Projects on environmental justice that evolve from topics in the syllabus will be used.

Uma will work with Tokuta and Rakesh Malhotra, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental, earth and geospatial sciences from NCCU; Adrienne Smith and Rebecca Zulli Lowe of Cynosure Consulting; and Elisabeth Stoddard, Ph.D., associate professor of teaching in environmental and sustainability studies, and Marja Bakermans, Ph.D., associate teaching professor in biology and biotechnology, of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.

A third grant that has been recommended by the NSF, will be led by Renata Rawlings-Goss, Ph.D., IDEaS director of industry engagement at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the focus will be on providing faculty training to scale up the number of students reached. Additional collaborators on this project are Marc Boumedine, Ph.D., chair of computer and computational sciences at the University of the Virgin Islands, and Earvin Balderama, Ph.D, assistant professor of mathematics at California State University, Fresno.

The fourth grant, this one from NASA for $1.33 million, is a repeat partnership with Fayetteville State University (Sambit Bhattacharya), which is the lead, and Winston-Salem State University (Debzani Deb). At NCCU, Uma will build on her existing research in using data science to address social inequities with artificial intelligence and machine learning. The grant, which runs from 2023 – 2026, will offer NCCU students an opportunity to work with NASA scientists in using data science to solve problems of interest to NASA such as improving life on earth and searching for life elsewhere. This grant will potentially increase students’ marketability and career options after graduation.

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