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Critical Thinking with Data

Liberal Arts & Sciences for the 21st Century

W&M Alumni Magazine
Winter 2023

For 330 years, William & Mary has led the nation in advancing knowledge and innovative ideas — from pioneering legal education in the United States to establishing a world-class marine science institute. We’ll honor many of these firsts at the university’s annual Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 10.

W&M’s strategic plan, Vision 2026, sets out the next ambitious moves that will meet the needs of our community, commonwealth and our nation for decades to come. By 2026, W&M will invest in four key areas where the university already has deep strengths: data and computational sciences, water conservation, citizenship in a pluralistic democracy and pathways to careers. This year, each of my From the Brafferton columns focuses on one of these areas. This issue’s focus is data.

The urgency to invest broadly in data sciences at W&M emerged organically, out of necessity, and in response to bursting student interest. In the past decade, interest in computational fields has more than tripled at W&M. From 2020 to 2022, undergraduate computer science degrees awarded at W&M increased by nearly 20%. In the data science program, which launched in 2020, the number of degrees conferred went from eight in 2021 to 35 in 2022.

This surge of interest reflects the growing importance of computational thinking in every community and industry around the nation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in data science alone will grow by 31% in the coming decade. According to a DataCamp survey, 89% of companies rate building data fluency as a priority for their business.

To meet growing demands for data-savvy employees, the commonwealth, business communities and higher education have aligned around talent. In 2019, W&M joined the Tech Talent Pipeline, which challenged Virginia colleges and universities to produce an additional 25,000 computer science-related degree holders by 2039.

The rapid growth that we are seeing in our computer science and data science programs was identified early in the strategic planning process, in 2019, as an area where the university would need to scale up our teaching and research to meet demand. Student Assembly outlined this need in a 2019 whitepaper. Faculty, staff and administrators set out to “pursue a more dynamic and influential presence in engineering, computational and information sciences” as part of a fall 2021 Vision Framework for Planning In.

In response, several departments began discussing how we might establish a computing and data science unit. Provost Agouris charged a design team comprising deans from all five of W&M’s schools, faculty and other university leaders with exploring what a unit might look like. That team conducted research and drafted a preliminary proposal for the unit. This draft will help inform collaborative cross-campus discussions around education and research at W&M in the areas of computing, data science and applied science.

The main takeaway: Data science is core to a liberal arts degree in the 21st century. For non-specialists (like me), it can be helpful to picture a simple Venn diagram, with three overlapping circles. The toolkits of data science are computational modeling and statistical analysis — two of the circles. Those tools are applied to any large corpus of data — the third circle — structured in a way that can answer meaningful questions. Linguists and literary scholars might study “big bags of words” in online collections to discern how literary genres change over time. Biologists and epidemiologists might study health care data to understand how disease affects different populations. Political scientists and engineers might study social media data to understand how misinformation travels and how it can be countered.

Statistical analysis is a mode of critical thinking, just like the other core modes of critical thinking our graduates cultivate at W&M. Thinking statistically helps humans understand likelihood, pattern and variation — and navigate uncertainty by tracking patterns across large bodies of evidence. Computational modeling is also a mode of critical thinking: a way to describe, analyze and solve complex problems using digital tools.

In the 21st century, the ability to problem-solve effectively and think ethically using these toolkits is part of what it means to be an educated person. That ability will ensure that our graduates lead in whatever domains they choose. Witness W&M’s strong showing at the iGEM Grand Jamboree in Paris this past October. For years, W&M’s iGEM team has shown its mettle against international powerhouses, such as MIT and Harvard. This year, W&M students once again earned a Gold Medal. Our team also took the prize for Best Software & AI Project.

Many William & Mary alumni are breaking new ground in data and artificial intelligence. You’ll read more about their inspiring stories in the magazine’s “Data Revolution” feature. At W&M, we aim to cultivate the next generation of well-rounded professionals and principled citizens, fluent in thinking critically with data at scale.