Published On: 04/15/2021Categories: Agbiosciences, AgTech, Industry News, Talent

Purdue to Launch Indiana Digital Crossroads

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When Mark Daniel Ward launched Purdue University’s Data Mine initiative in 2018, he worked with fewer than 100 students from various academic backgrounds who wanted to learn about data science and how to use it in their careers.

Fast forward to today. Ward, professor of statistics and director of The Data Mine, is coordinating real-world projects with 26 companies in Indiana and beyond. He’s offering data science training to 600 Purdue undergraduate and graduate students this year, with plans to reach more than 1,000 students in the year ahead.

And he’s not stopping there. Next up is an Indiana statewide expansion, engaging leading industries and high school students.

Thanks to a $10 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., Purdue will launch the Indiana Digital Crossroads, an initiative that will take the Data Mine concept beyond the Purdue West Lafayette campus. Students who become involved with the Indiana Digital Crossroads will learn data science skills through immersive engagement with Indiana-based companies that will potentially lead to careers in Indiana, enhancing the state’s surging tech sector. That growth is fueled by an explosion of data in the world, and industries from medical to professional sports want to know how to interpret that information.

ward-m20vMark Daniel Ward, professor of statistics and director of The Data Mine at Purdue University. (Purdue University photo). Download image

The $10 million grant to Purdue Research Foundation is funded through Lilly Endowment’s recent initiative, Charting the Future for Indiana’s Colleges and Universities. Purdue is one of 16 Indiana colleges and universities receiving grants in the final phase of the initiative, which was designed to help Indiana higher education institutions assess and prioritize their most significant challenges and develop strategies to address them.

The goal of Indiana Digital Crossroads is to create regional data science hubs and begin geographically based programs designed to engage businesses and undergraduate students. As Indiana’s land-grant university, Purdue will leverage its presence throughout the state to develop these regional data hubs to energize and prepare communities, employers and high school and college students for jobs of the future. This will allow Purdue to share the success of its Data Mine and integrative data science initiative more broadly.

The first locations for these regional hubs will be Purdue University Fort Wayne and Purdue Polytechnic Institute in Anderson.

“We could not be more excited for Lilly Endowment’s support of Purdue’s vision for Indiana Digital Crossroads,” said Jay Akridge, Purdue provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity. “This project will bring together world-leading faculty, Indiana’s business leaders and students to find innovative ways to address real-world issues facing workforce development and the economic prosperity of Indiana communities.”

One key aspect will be outreach to Indiana’s high school students, many of whom lack access to data science-related learning and educational programs in their communities, as well as undergraduate students who face barriers to data science skills training.

“Part of the Indiana Digital Crossroads plan calls for outreach to educators to develop programs for high school students to understand why data science is important for their future,” Akridge said. “We also will be addressing access to data science programs and careers for students in urban and rural school districts where such access is lacking.”

As Purdue’s Frederick L. Hovde Dean of the College of Science and Miller Family Professor of Statistics and Computer Science, Patrick Wolfe knows the importance of data science to the future. It affects everyone, he said. So, The Data Mine, which establishes an environment that allows students to thrive and become a new data-fluent generation, is a treasured asset.

“Purdue’s Department of Statistics has been exceptionally forward-thinking in supporting Mark and launching The Data Mine efforts,” Wolfe said. “It pleases us immensely to see such a successful scale-up and scale-out. As the first backers of the program, we in the College of Science had every confidence from the get-go that Mark would succeed enormously – and these next plans to broaden The Data Mine are exactly in line with the high ambitions we all have for data science as a broad strategic priority across Purdue.”

The Data Mine has seen exponential growth in the number of students, but continues to offer individual support for their professional development. Many of them are learning for the first time the importance of data science in their disciplines.

“The data-driven economy creates opportunities for companies that need a well-prepared and diverse workforce,” Ward said. “By partnering and collaborating with Indiana companies, we are enabling students from all disciplines to better understand data-intensive jobs and careers. Students can live and work near their hometown. These opportunities also will attract students from other states to establish their careers here in Indiana.

“Many of our students have received internship and job opportunities because they worked on projects with our corporate partners. And our corporate partners want to grow their workforce with students who have a knowledge of data science, the company’s workplace culture and the necessary domain-specific skills.”

The scaling up and cross-campus collaboration is an exciting moment for faculty, students and employers, said Jenna Rickus, Purdue vice provost for teaching and learning. Rickus said The Data Mine and Indiana Digital Crossroads will build upon the current spirit of innovation and experiential education, continuing to engage students – especially first-generation, rural and underrepresented minority students – beyond the classroom.

“Indiana Digital Crossroads will expand data science-related educational paths for students in all parts of Indiana,” Rickus said. “By doing such, it can provide all students a clearer sense of career opportunities in their own communities. This is also exciting because it addresses access for employers of various sizes and industries around the state to data-savvy talent.”

By serving as one of the first regional hubs, Purdue Fort Wayne will forge stronger relationships with companies and expand student access to data science and workforce development opportunities.

“Indiana Digital Crossroads is expected to cast a wider net of such immersion for a broad range of students by expanding the model of The Data Mine to the Fort Wayne metropolitan area and Northeast Indiana,” said Peter Dragnev, professor and chair of Purdue Fort Wayne’s Department of Mathematical Sciences. “This initiative will provide our diverse student body with the data science experiences and skills needed to excel in the modern economy.”

Dragnev said there are numerous other opportunities available for not only the students, but the communities of Northeast Indiana.

“The opportunity to positively impact the lives of first-generation students and underrepresented minorities by empowering them with the data-driven experiences and skills is exhilarating,” Dragnev said. “Data science is reshaping our present and our future, and we will play a central role in this revolution, which is so important for our communities.”