Metropolitan Chicago Data-science Corps to partner with area organizations on projects

Five Illinois universities, led by Northwestern University, have established the Metropolitan Chicago Data-science Corps (MCDC) to help meet the data science needs of the Chicago metropolitan area. The interdisciplinary corps will assist a wide range of community-based groups in taking advantage of increasing data volume and complexity while also offering data science students opportunities to apply their skills.

“The amount of data produced in society today can be overwhelming to nonprofit organizations, especially those without pertinent resources, but data can help them fulfill their missions,” said Northwestern’s Suzan van der Lee, who spearheaded the initiative and is a professor of Earth and planetary sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The MCDC team is led by 11 co-directors. Northwestern’s co-directors are Van der Lee, Michelle Birkett, Bennett Goldberg and Diane Schanzenbach. The MCDC team also includes Northwestern faculty involved in new data science minor and major programs offered by Weinberg College and the McCormick School of Engineering, including Arend Kuyper and Jennie Rogers.

In addition to Northwestern, the partner universities are DePaul, Northeastern Illinois and Chicago State universities and the School of Information Sciences (iSchool) of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The corps will be supported by a new grant from the National Science Foundation of nearly $1.5 million over three years.

Requests for data services are now being accepted from nonprofit and governmental organizations in the metropolitan Chicago area. Data challenges in the areas of the environment, health and social well-being are of particular interest to the corps.

The city of Chicago, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Howard Brown Health and The Nature Conservancy are just some of the organizations the MCDC will be working with as community partners.

“With this new data science corps, we are sharing our expertise to help community organizations use data to their advantage,” Van der Lee said. “And interdisciplinary teams of Chicagoland data science students will receive hands-on training on how to partner with the community organizations with the goal of completing projects with real-world impact.”

Van der Lee is a member of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), which will provide administrative infrastructure to the MCDC.

The MCDC aims to strengthen the national data science workforce and infrastructure by integrating the needs of community organizations with academic learning. Teams of undergraduate students at the partner universities will work on data science projects provided by the organizations as part of the students’ curriculum.

“Despite a global pandemic, we have seen our region’s technology industry flourish – an achievement that is undoubtedly thanks to dynamic partnerships forged between our incredible city and state universities,” Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot said. “The MCDC is the latest of such partnerships, and it will deepen our regional strength in data science while simultaneously enhancing how nonprofit organizations and government bodies utilize data-driven programs to strengthen our communities.”

The Metropolitan Chicago Data-science Corps unites diverse students and faculty across institutions and disciplines. At Northwestern, involved faculty come from six schools, including Weinberg, McCormick and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Northwestern undergraduate students taking the practicum course can be from any discipline and will have had at least a year’s worth of data science courses. Masters students can volunteer to be project managers. The first of several practicum courses at Northwestern will be offered in the winter quarter this academic year. Students completing the course then will be eligible for paid summer internships in which they can work more in-depth on projects with students from partner universities.

In the third year of the grant, the MCDC plans work with faculty at a city college and a community college to implement its curriculum there, further expanding data science education in metropolitan Chicago.

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