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Data literacy for the next generation

This fall, the Connolly Alexander Institute for Data Science (CAIDS) officially offers Tulane faculty and students programming to significantly increase Tulanians’ data fluency.

Data is everywhere. We are consuming, generating and sharing data. From the news we engage with to the items we shop for, the entertainment we watch, read, or listen to, and even the conversations and interactions we have on our devices, data is being used to shape our lives and the world around us.

Perhaps the biggest reminder of that fact was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when transmission, hospital and vaccination rates were top of mind.

And when it came time for Tulane University to create its Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) for reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2021, COVID-19 was again often referenced — but this time in the support of data literacy.

The SACS reaccreditation process, which Tulane undergoes every 10 years, requires the university to create a QEP that enhances the educational experiences of the university. Following two years of planning and input by faculty, students and staff, the idea of The Data Hub was chosen as Tulane’s QEP.

This summer, through a transformational $12.5 million gift by Libby Alexander (NC ’84), alumna and Board of Tulane member, and her husband, Robert, The Data Hub was renamed the Connolly Alexander Institute for Data Science (CAIDS). The gift will further support the institute’s goal of advancing Tulane as a leader in data-informed pedagogy.

“If anyone understands the importance of data management and analytics to the present and to the future, it’s Libby and Robert Alexander,” Tulane President Michael A. Fitts said. “Through their expertise and generosity, they have been instrumental in furthering and developing Tulane’s strategy for implementing data literacy and data science at every level of the university. We’re extremely grateful that the business success they achieved is now helping to drive this initiative at Tulane. Our students will reach new heights academically thanks to the support of this amazing Tulane couple.”

“The Connolly Alexander Institute for Data Science will make data fluency a defining characteristic of the Tulane experience,” Tulane Provost Robin Forman said. “Our goal is to help our students and faculty develop the awareness, understanding and skills they will need to successfully navigate an increasingly data-rich environment, and to be able to use data to make their own meaningful contributions whether that is to their academic disciplines or to any of the growing number of data-intensive professions.”

CAIDS moved into office spaces in the lower level of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library on the uptown campus in August. Patrick Button serves as the inaugural executive director. They are an associate professor of economics at the School of Liberal Arts.

The key goal for CAIDS, Button said, is to make data literacy more accessible for everyone.

“Data-driven decision-making should not be done only by a select few,” they said. “We need leaders of all types and backgrounds, and we need to equip them with data literacy and data skills.”

CAIDS also aims to empower students with the skills and knowledge to utilize data and data analysis in their academic pursuits, research and their careers.

Button said students having data skills as a “competitive edge” in their careers is important since data-focused jobs are growing at a fast rate.

“For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the employment of data scientists will grow 36% over about the next decade, compared to 5% for all other occupations,” they said. “Even those who don’t want to be data scientists will need data skills, as more occupations will require them.”


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Enriching curriculum and research

This fall, the institute is offering its first course, Intro to Data, taught by Lisa Dilks, a new professor of practice.

“Teaching data and learning how to use data can be challenging for beginners, and our goal is to minimize these barriers,” Button said of the course and future courses CAIDS will offer.

Intro to Data is an evergreen course and can be taken by any student regardless of their major, Joey Couvillon, senior program manager at CAIDS, said.

Some of the course objectives include identifying the limitations of data sources, learning how to accurately interpret and explain data presented in different formats, analyzing data to form thoughtful judgments and recognizing misleading representations of data.

“How does data surround your life; being able to recognize that and being able to recognize what is good, what is bad data, what are good and what are bad arguments?” Couvillon said.

Couvillon said the institute is working to develop two more courses for the spring semester. In addition to Dilks, CAIDS also hired Jacquelyne Thoni Howard, professor of practice, and is in the works to add a third.

The institute aims to “fill the gaps” in providing data literacy education, Couvillon said, and to complement existing data courses and programs at Tulane.

“Data inherently is a multidisciplinary thing,” he said. “We see ourselves taking care of some of that introductory work first, so students gain an interest and then perform better in whichever school or department they choose.”

The institute has several initiatives to support teaching and research involving data.

CAIDS has partnered with the Newcomb Institute to offer a Data Research Internship program and plans to partner with the Tulane Center for Public Service for service-learning courses in the future, according to Couvillon. The institute currently offers grants for data-related projects and research to students through Newcomb-Tulane College’s Grants for Academic Enrichment. Additionally, faculty can apply for Tulane Interdisciplinary Experience Seminar (TIDES) course development grants, which support the creation of new data-focused courses or add a data-learning component to an existing course.

Button said with the amount of data already created and expected to expand, it provides a plethora of opportunities for groundbreaking discoveries and research.

“Data-focused research is becoming more and more common, even in academic fields that were historically less data-driven, such as the humanities,” they said.

“We need leaders of all types and backgrounds, and we need to equip them with data literacy and data skills.”

Patrick Button, Executive Director, CAIDS

Button said that the institute plans to further support students and faculty by providing funding and workshops on topics such as GIS, or Geographic Information System, which creates, analyzes, manages and maps data, Python for data analysis, which is a computer programming language, and data visualization.

Moving forward, the institute plans to identify a data theme, which will be chosen annually, to appeal across disciplines.

The institute will also launch a help desk staffed by undergraduate and graduate students to support those seeking data assistance. The help desk will also provide an opportunity for peer mentorship and for students to gain professional, hands-on experience.

“We want to help students as much as we can to develop their skills for the real world,” Couvillon said.

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Eventually, CAIDS will establish a Data Week, which will feature a week of activities dedicated to advancing data learning on campus. Down the line, the institute plans to expand programming by hosting lectures, research colloquia and boot camps, competitions, and more.

Couvillon said with the data that society is constantly bombarded with, his goal is for the institute to help people know how to sift through it all.

“If we’re doing our job, we can help people develop a better framework for how to find truth in their life and better navigate information.”

“We want to help students as much as we can to develop their skills for the real world.”

Joey Couvillon, Senior Program Manager, CAIDS

By harnessing data, the institute is another avenue through which Tulane can make a lasting impact in cultivating leaders and experts who can tackle challenging contemporary issues.

“Given the great track record of what Tulane alums get up to after they graduate, I think they can make even more waves if more of them have data skills,” Button said.