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New Big Data Program Draws NSF Funding for UC Merced

November 13, 2013

As the world continues to amass more digital data everyday, thousands of skilled mathematicians will be needed to slice it into meaningful pieces that can help power the information economy.

With the help of an $880,000 grant, three of UC Merced’s applied math faculty members will help prepare some of those future data analyzers.

“Every business right now is trying to predict consumer intent and producing huge amounts of data,” Professor Arnold Kim said. “The challenge is: How do we analyze all that data and extract useable information? We’ve got all this information and computational tools, and it’s flipping us on our heads.”

The grant is to help engage students and teachers in the relatively new field of computational and data-enabled science – the analysis of big data.

The five-year grant from the National Science Foundation allows about 10 students each year conduct research and work with faculty members and area businesses to help solve real-world problems. When they complete the program, the students will be highly skilled in a field that’s in high demand, the professors said.

Regional businesses and industry can benefit from this well-trained pool of prospective employees, complementing one of UC Merced’s missions, to help diversify and improve the economy of the Central Valley.

The NSF grant will pay for Kim and his School of Natural Sciences colleagues Professor Rommuel Marcia and lecturer Lei Yue to lead a multipronged program called Data-enabled Science and Computational Analysis Research, Training and Education for Students, or DESCARTES.

DESCARTES will offer $4,500 a year for three years and research opportunities for students accepted into the program, add an emphasis track to the applied math major and offer a summer workshop series for area high school teachers to help them understand the world of opportunities open to students who excel at big-data analysis.

Though the program is still in development, the co-directors are recruiting students for the first group of scholars starting in the spring semester.

The three faculty members are contributing to curriculum development for new courses. Marcia will coordinate with faculty mentors to track students’ research progress and supervise graduate-student mentors. Yue is developing the summer teaching workshops to help high school teachers.

The hope is that students will consider careers in applied math if they get excited about its possibilities while still in high school.

“Nearly every sector of business and industry, like health care and retail, is now using data to innovate, better serve clients and increase profits,” Marcia said. “Typically, data come in large unstructured volumes, and someone has to clean them up and extract meaningful information and insight. Careers in data management, data analysis, database development and informatics are certainly becoming more in demand.”

Yue said helping teachers learn how to add the “flavor” of applied math to their curriculums will benefit the students and UC Merced.

“If we want to get really good students, we’ve got to engage them early on, and that means working with their teachers,” Yue said.

The DESCARTES Program leaders are also working with University Development and the Center for Career and Professional Advancement, the Center for Research on Teaching Excellence and the CalTeach/Science and Mathematics Initiative to develop the best possible program, and one that can continue when the grant expires.

“This program has the potential to be one of the hallmarks of the applied math major at UC Merced,” Marcia said. “We would like to maintain the program past the NSF support, and that will require new partnerships and other creative solutions.”