William & Mary is exploring the possibility of establishing a new academic unit in computing and data science, Provost Peggy Agouris told members of the Board of Visitors on Thursday.

The effort springs from a surge in student interest in applied science, computer science and data science at William & Mary, and a commitment from the university in its strategic plan to support anticipated needs in the Virginia workforce.

To meet anticipated growth, Agouris has formed an exploratory design team with representatives from all five W&M schools, while three core departments are working to develop a model for the proposed academic unit, which could potentially be a separate school.

“It’s critical to evaluate how these growing units can be best organized because it can have serious implications on our ability to provide resources for the education that W&M is offering across disciplines and to attract and expand key partnerships” said Agouris, who presented the effort during the Board of Visitors Committee on Academic Affairs meeting in the W&M Alumni House. “The right organizational structure can re-imagine our value in the computational and data space. It can foster important relationships at the state and federal levels, with other institutions, with friends and donors, and with like-minded organizations that might be new partners to us. It’s my hope that it deepens our strengths and expands our horizons.”

The university has experienced an explosion of interest in the computational sciences in recent years, and computational skills are also increasingly used throughout other disciplines. Over the last 10 years, interest in computational fields has more than tripled at W&M, going from 211 declared majors in just two fields (computer science and math) to 738 in six (computer science, data science, math, computational and applied mathematics and statistics, business analytics – data science, and business analytics – supply chain). 

The growth in those fields reflects an overall increase in student interest in STEM fields at W&M. From 2011 to 2022, the number of graduates in STEM disciplines at W&M has more than doubled, growing from 284 to 693. Looking just at the past two years, the number of computer science degrees that the university conferred went from 78 to 93. In the data science program, which just began in 2020, the number of degrees conferred went from eight in 2021 to 35 in 2022. 

At the same time, data has become increasingly important to the university overall. With data as one of four initiatives outlined in the Vision 2026 strategic plan, William & Mary has committed to expanding its “presence and influence in computational and data sciences …consistent with student demand and Virginia workforce needs.”

“This school represents an opportunity to boldly grow the community of William & Mary in new directions, serve new student populations and showcase the incredible talent of our teachers and researchers to new domestic and international audiences,” said Dan Runfola, assistant professor of applied science. “By integrating our computational activities into a new unit, we recognize the unique challenges and opportunities these rapidly evolving fields present and gain the ability to nimbly respond to new opportunities without disrupting our ability to offer a world class liberal arts education.”

Formal discussions about a possible computing and data science unit at W&M started in spring 2022 and developed organically, Agouris said, with faculty members initially raising the idea. After an ad hoc design team with representatives from the university’s arts and sciences, business, education, law and marine science was formed to explore the possibilities, its members began conducting research on similar structures at other universities and considering what might make sense for William & Mary.

Faculty leaders from the departments of computer science, applied science and the data science program are now working on drafting a model based on that research. This semester, the model will be refined as feedback is received from various stakeholders, including the Faculty Assembly.

The model and action plan are expected to be finalized in the spring, with a goal of submitting them to the Board of Visitors and the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia in the fall of 2023.

The exploratory effort is part of William & Mary’s continued work to increase its offerings in the computational sciences as career opportunities and student interest grow.

Currently, the university offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science as well as a computer science minor. In 2020, W&M began offering a bachelor’s degree in data science, and subsequently created the popular Jump Start Data Science summer program that can lead to an accelerated minor. The Department of Applied Science has a well-established doctoral program that also offers a data science concentration. Applied science also offers an undergraduate minor and master’s degree options.

Increasing the number of students with data science and computational skills is also a focus of the federal and state government. In 2019, the university joined the commonwealth’s Tech Talent initiative, which seeks to increase the number of Virginians with computer science-related degrees. The Tech Talent Investment Program provides funding to participating Virginia universities and colleges to help expand that “tech talent pipeline.”

While preparing interested students to enter that pipeline is one of the key drivers for exploring a new computing and data science unit at W&M, Agouris said it is all still in the early phases and that the university is doing its due diligence in seeing what might be the best fit for the university.

“We want to make sure this makes sense for our university based on the growth we are experiencing, the associated demands, and also what we are hearing from our academic community” said Agouris.

Editor’s note: Data is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.

, University News & Media