Next-generation leaders gain hands-on training in data science from Virginia Tech and Microsoft to address challenges in agriculture and rural communities
“The Data Science of the Public Good program has given me the skills to understand, interpret, and analyze data,” said Taj Cole, a rising senior in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.
Virginia Tech recently received a $748,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to fund an annual 10-week research internship for undergraduates in data analytics in agriculture, community, and rural economics program referred to as DATA-ACRE.
The DATA–ACRE grant provided the platform for Virginia Tech to continue to develop the Data Science for the Public Good program, which was first piloted in 2020 as part of a joint initiative across three states and five universities to conduct data science training to tackle challenges surrounding processes in agriculture and food production. This type of training develops next-generation leaders working to ensure prosperous rural communities, and continued agricultural productivity in rural communities worldwide.
“The Data Science for the Public Good program means a lot to me. It taught me not only how to collect and analyze data, but how to interact with people from all over the world,” said Tay Osborne, senior business management and marketing major at Austin Peay State University.
"The program provides students with experiential learning that includes exposure to data analytic tools, so they, in turn, can make a meaningful impact on our agriculture and rural communities. The students’ experiences go beyond data analytics. A strong component of the program is learning how to interpret, apply, and present policy-specific solutions to the relevant governmental and state agencies. This allows them to see the real-life implications of their work," said Susan Chen, principal investigator and associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.
“Virginia Tech, and especially its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is fortunate to have expert faculty members addressing these issues and mentoring students on how to creatively apply leading-edge data-centric tools,” Chen said. “The DATA–ACRE funding allows us to continue to recruit an outstanding and diverse body of undergraduate interns from Virginia Tech and our partner institutions across the U.S.”
As part of the training, students learn computer languages R and Python, as well as how to extract and use data from publicly available sources. This crucial skillset provides students with the confidence and knowledge to convert raw information into graphic formats so they can learn how to analyze data to make interpretations and predictions.
Nathaniel Porter, co-principal investigator, and University Libraries’ social science data consultant and data education coordinator, helped develop and teach the curriculum.
“This program allows us to provide opportunities to a diverse body of students with an increased emphasis on attracting new talent to data analytics in the agriculture and social sciences,” said Porter.
This year’s 2022 projects are led by faculty mentors Elinor Benami, Susan Chen, and Chanit’a Holmes in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Brianna Posadas in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences.
“The Data Science of the Public Good program has given me the skills to understand, interpret, and analyze data,” said Taj Cole, a rising senior with the Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.
While the program is primarily held on the Virginia Tech campus, this year’s cohort traveled and met with their sister program at the University of Virginia’s Social and Decision Analytics Division in Washington, D.C.
The Virginia Tech Data Science for the Public Good students also visited The Microsoft Garage in Reston, Virginia, for a day of mentoring activities. The mission of Microsoft Garage is to deliver programs that spark collaboration, creativity, and experimentation.
Students spent the day with Piali Ghose, senior director, Faiza Qadri, senior customer success account manager, Husna Ali-Khan, director of community engagement and partnerships, Andrea Evans, director of D.C. Metro employee and community strategy, and other mentors from Microsoft.
The mentors provided a day around STEM activities and conducted a mini hackathon with the students and the Sister2Sister program run by American University. This provided the perfect platform for students to express ideas, learn how to work within a diverse team, and investigate new technologies.
The project-focused Data Science for the Public Good program provides DATA–ACRE students with two opportunities to present their summer research projects to the public:
- Virginia Tech Summer Research Symposium: July 28, 2022, from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. in Goodwin Hall Auditorium on the Virginia Tech campus
- Data Science for the Public Good virtual Symposium on August 4, 2022, from 12 - 3 p.m.
Research project presentations will be on the following topics:
- Agricultural Land Use Change in Powhatan and Goochland County
- Using Remote Sensed Data for Social and Economic Decision Making in Zimbabwe
- Sensing Drought in the Sahel for Household Climate Resilience
- Illustrating Potential Opportunities for Community Schools in Loudoun County
- Assessing Livelihood Diversification in Sundarbans, India using High-Frequency Data
“The Data Science for the Public Good program is a highly creative approach to integrating Extension programming, data science research methods, and experiential learning. Virginia Cooperative Extension continues to be a proud and enthusiastic supporter of this program,” said Ed Jones, director of Virginia Cooperative Extension.
The Fralin Life Sciences Institute of Virginia Tech generously matched $325,000 in funding for the Data Science for the Public Good program over the next five years.
“Programs like this, provide hands-on experiential learning opportunities that are directly connected to problems facing our communities, and are critical for helping develop the next generation of leaders,” said XJ Meng, Fralin’s interim executive director. “We are proud to support Chen’s vision for providing these opportunities to students.”
With a projected employment growth in the field of data science of more than 31 percent through 2030, programs like the Data Science for the Public Good are helping answer the demand for this growing field of expertise.