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Friday, October 8, 2021

Northeastern Illinois University is one of five Illinois schools to partner in the establishment of the Metropolitan Chicago Data-science Corps (MCDC) to help meet the data science needs of the Chicago metropolitan area. 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. This 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 MCDC is being led by Northwestern University. In addition to Northeastern, other partner universities are DePaul University, Chicago State University and the School of Information Sciences at 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. 

The MCDC will unite diverse students and faculty across institutions and disciplines. Northwestern University’s Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Suzan van der Lee is spearheading the initiative. Northeastern’s primary investigator on this project is Associate Professor of Earth Science Nadja Insel. Other senior personnel working on the MCDC from Northeastern include Associate Professor of Mathematics Joseph Hibdon, Associate Professor of Computer Science Francisco Iacobelli, Professor and Department Chair of Computer Science Marcelo O. Sztainberg and Associate Professor Geography and Environmental Studies Ting Liu

Northeastern students from all disciplines are welcome to join the MCDC. 

“By providing data science education to a diverse cohort of undergraduate students and integrating real-world data science projects into the undergraduate curriculum, we are creating multiple pathways to develop a representative, inclusive national workforce proficient in data science in the future,” Insel said. “The MCDC will develop new approaches to four primary domains: health, social, environmental, and basic sciences. Through cross-disciplinary training, mentoring and learning opportunities, the MCDC will instill in students broad analytical skills, transferable soft skills, and agile technological abilities as well as provide opportunities to connect and engage with community partners.”

The MCDC includes pathway courses in Mathematics, Computer Science, Earth Science, Geography and Environmental Studies, Management, and Economics, with a possible expansion of offerings in the future. Completion of pathway courses provide entry into a project-based MCDC practicum course, in which groups of students solve data science problems for and with a variety of community partners. Students who successfully complete the MCDC practicum course will be encouraged to apply for an eight-week summer program, in which cross-institutional student groups work with community partners and faculty mentors on data science applications. 

“The summer internships are aimed to provide opportunities to students from all backgrounds with demonstrated excellence in data science analysis,” Insel said. “Those students will have the appropriate preparations and can provide varying perspectives and experiences to the project. Students will be matched to the projects based on project needs and student skill levels.”

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

“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.”

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.

“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.”

Northeastern students interested in participating in the MCDC should contact Nadja Insel at n-insel@neiu.edu or connect with their academic advisor.