It’s the latest phase in a long-term project to promote data science.

In November 2023, Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider and Karle Flanagan spent a full day at the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) in Chicago, presenting an intensive workshop on data science to nearly 20 Chicago Public Schools curriculum designers. It was a hit with the attendees, but more than that, it was the latest step in an expanding, multi-year effort to bring data science to the masses—while also promoting the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) as a national leader in data science education.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently projected that employment of data scientists will grow by 36% from 2021 to 2031, suggesting a need to attract many young people to the field. Fagen-Ulmschneider, a professor of Computer Science at The Grainger College of Engineering, and Flanagan, a professor of Statistics in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, have answered that call by building a web presence called DISCOVERY designed to raise awareness of UIUC’s world-class data science offerings and provide an accessible, free introductory data science education that anyone with a smartphone can use as a point of entry to the field.

DPI curriculum designers

Chicago Public Schools curriculum designers at the Discovery Partners Institute.

Fagen-Ulmschneider said that a seed grant from DPI enabled their DISCOVERY website to launch in summer 2021. The site makes the substance of UIUC’s STAT/CS/IS 107 course, Data Science Discovery, freely available online. “There’s no login, there’s no ads; it’s just totally free. The DISCOVERY resources contain extremely high-quality content and serve as the basis for our freshman-level course here,” he said.

“When we started DISCOVERY, we shared the vision that Illinois will be the national leader of undergraduate education in data science. Every time you search for basic data science concepts, it should be no surprise when Illinois is a top search result,” added Fagen-Ulmschneider. “Much of our focus has been on how do we provide high-quality content. After that, 'phase 2’ is, how do we get out there and let people know about it.”

In pursuit of that “phase 2” goal, every summer since 2021, Fagen-Ulmschneider and Flanagan have partnered with DPI to run a 6-week summer experience as part of DPI’s Digital Scholars program. In each offering, 30 to 40 high-school students, guided by experienced UIUC teaching assistants, are taught a condensed version of the Data Science Discovery course content.

“That’s gone incredibly well. The high school students have engaged with it, and several have become UIUC students,” noted Fagen-Ulmschneider. That success led him and Flanagan to start figuring out how to get to the next level: how to go from summer programs to integration into the mainstream school curriculum.

Flanagan explained that “one of the main goals of the data science initiative here at UIUC is for all students, regardless of their major or background, to have the opportunity to have a meaningful experience with data science beginning with our course. Starting with high school students is even better; the earlier we introduce students to basic data science, the better!” 

DPI connected the duo with the Chicago Public School System, leading to the November workshop.

The curriculum developers who attended responded to a post-event survey, and “the feedback was extremely positive,” according to Fagen-Ulmschneider. It has led to follow-up conversations on how to ramp up efforts.

Last year, Fagen-Ulmschneider and Flanagan received a campus Investment for Growth grant that will support creation of more articles, tutorials, videos and other resources for the DISCOVERY platform, with one aim being to generate a million page views of UIUC data science content per month.

“We’re doing good work building out resources to ensure when high-schoolers want to know data science, the first thing they think about is Illinois,” said Fagen-Ulmschneider. “And that’s the vision for Illinois, Grainger, and LAS, to be synonymous with data science.”