AMHERST, Mass. – The Manning College of Information & Computer Sciences (CICS) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently announced that it has received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help expand access to high-quality data-science careers and research pathways for low-income, academically strong students. The program, Boosting Access to Data Science Scholars, which will run for six years and is led by Michelle Trim, associate director of the informatics program and senior teaching faculty at UMass Amherst, will fund 40 students for the duration of their UMass studies, significantly lowering the financial bar that blocks the path of too many.
UMass Amherst associate director of the informatics program and senior lecturer II Michelle Trim.
Data science, or the analysis of huge quantities of information in order to pull out dominant trends, often goes hand-in-hand with informatics, which is the application of computer-science principles to real-world problems—think the data visualization tools that have allowed us all to understand the risk and spread of COVID. These two studies often lead to a career as a data analyst, which is among the most rapidly growing of career pathways. The Bureau of Labor expects the number of positions to grow by 25% between 2019 and 2029, and the average salary, in Massachusetts, hovers around $70,000 per year.
Manning CICS students preparing for the HackUMass hackathon.
There is great need for a well-trained, accomplished data-science workforce, and yet the cost of a college education too often bars many talented, low-income students. Add to that the longstanding recognition that the tech industry suffers from a diversity problem, and it’s clear that universities need to do more to welcome deserving students into the fold. “Data science needs the deepest pool of talent it can get,” says Trim, “and we know there are students with enormous potential who are turning away simply because they can’t afford the college price tag.”
Beginning in the fall of 2022, UMass Amherst will begin offering $10,000 per year to informatics and computer science majors interested in data science. Some of these students will arrive as first-years and will plan to attend UMass for all four years of their education, but others will be transfers who have already completed two years of undergraduate work at community colleges. In all, CICS will be able to fund 40 students throughout their entire course of study at UMass Amherst.
“But,” says Trim, “it’s not enough for us just to get these students in the door by helping them with costs of attendance. They need us to invest in their success throughout their time in our program, and that means providing mentoring and guidance along the way.” Trim, a first-generation, entirely self-funded student herself who initially turned away from STEM because of its homogeneity, has designed with her team of teaching-focused faculty a whole host of curricular and extra-curricular support structures to help guide the students through their college experience and place them in competitive data-science jobs upon graduation. These range from personalized mentoring, to attendance at industry conferences, tech-industry career fairs, and data-science-specific “boot camps” designed to quickly bring students up to speed.
“I have a deep desire to help underrepresented, first-generation, and economically disadvantaged students succeed in STEM careers,” says Trim. “Our motto here at CICS is ‘computing for the common good,’ and the Boosting Access to Data Science program will both address social inequities and fill the need for well-trained informatics and computing professionals all at the same time.”