Three UAMS Researchers Receive DART Seed Grants for Data Science Projects

By Linda Satter

The DART (Data Analytics that are Robust and Trusted) seed grants were awarded as part of a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary, statewide grant program, known as Arkansas EPSCoR, that leverages $24 million over five years to expand research, workforce development, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational outreach in Arkansas.

The program is funded through the National Science Foundation. Its goal is to improve research capability and competitiveness in Arkansas to maximize resources to sustain a new diverse, data-driven economy as the state transitions from a primarily agricultural and manufacturing-based economy.

Kevin D. Phelan, Ph.D., and Tiffany W. Huitt, Ph.D., professor and assistant professor, respectively, in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Neurobiology and Developmental Sciences, received a two-year $97,608 grant for their project, “Piloting Big Data Science in Arkansas Middle Schools.”

Sean Young, Ph.D., assistant professor of Environmental and Occupational Health in the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, received $55,696 for his project, “Geospatial Data Science in Public Health: Inter-institutional educational collaboration to enhance data science curriculum in Arkansas.”

Sean Young, Ph.D., sits at his desk in front of computer screens displaying some of the geospatial data that students will work with.

Sean Young, Ph.D., sits at his desk in front of computer screens displaying some of the geospatial data that students will work with.

Phelan said the overall goal of his and Huitt’s grant “is to encourage the use of big datasets in classrooms across the state to prepare students early for data science fields.”

He explained, “Large data sets are being collected about businesses and individuals at an ever increasing rate. Health care is one of the fastest growing sectors of data science, which examines those large data sets to gain insight and make predictions about future events.

“Arkansas’ economy across all sectors of industry has been rapidly switching to one that relies heavily on data science,” he said. “As a state, we need to focus on developing a data-literate work force for the 21st century, and this will require a long-term strategy that targets education across the full spectrum from kindergarten through college. The lack of data science talent remains one of the biggest challenges facing the future of data science.”

Through Phelan’s and Huitt’s grant, selected middle school classrooms across the state will be pilot sites for an established big data curriculum developed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Students will use 20 years of data on oceans, such as changes in sea level or salinity, to learn how the data can be used to predict future patterns. Teachers will be trained how to implement the project in their classrooms, and the pilot program will document the effectiveness of incorporating big data science into the middle school curriculum.

“Arkansas middle students desperately need early and repeated exposure to big data science in order to be prepared not only for future careers but also for use of such data in making decisions that affect their lives,” Phelan said. “It is crucial for society to have an educated public that recognizes that decisions based on data-driven scientific evidence drive positive societal progress.”

Young’s DART seed grant project uses curriculum and expertise in the College of Public Health to develop a new undergraduate-level data science course at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville focusing on geospatial data science in public health. As part of the Data Science for Arkansas Initiative, the coursework will be shared with postsecondary institutions across the state, to help extend data science training resources to as many students in Arkansas as possible.

“Data science is more relevant than ever before for students seeking careers in public health and health care, because these students need to know how to perform high-quality data analysis, how to work with complex and potentially sensitive datasets including geospatial data, and how to effectively disseminate the results to a wide audience,” he said.

Geospatial data science students learn how use geographic information systems and related technologies to create complex datasets associated with locations on earth. This includes learning how to collect and store data, to make maps, to create models showing how people or objects move across the landscape, to detect and describe spatial patterns through statistics, and to analyze and predict which areas are at risk of hazards.

Young, a medical geographer, notes that these skills can be used in a variety of public health situations, such as to help plan and direct projects that would be affected by topography, climate and soil factors; to map the impacts — financial and otherwise — of a health problem or health care resources; and to determine how easily residents in an area can reach services and facilities. The skills can also be used to identify clusters of rare diseases and begin exploring possible environmental causes, and to determine the risk for specific health hazards in a community, based on sociodemographic and environmental data. An example of the latter is the COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index used by the Centers for Disease Control.