WPI Receives U.S. Dept. of Education Funding to Address Shortage in Big Data Computing Professionals

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WPI_logoAddressing a critical need for enhancing the nation’s capacity for computer science research and teaching, the U.S. Department of Education has granted Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) $885,834 through its Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program. The funding will provide six needs-based fellowships for computer science PhD students who will study big data computing.

The GAANN program provides fellowships to assist U.S. citizens who are pursuing doctoral degrees in fields deemed to be “areas of national need,” such as the sciences, computing, and education. This GAANN grant focuses on big data analytics, large-scale data management, and visual data mining.

The principal investigator for the grant is Elke Rundensteiner, professor of computer science and director of WPI’s Data Science program. “Computing has transformed all aspects of work and life, and in order to remain globally competitive and to help keep the nation safe, the United States needs more computer science professors who can do the important work of driving innovation and training more computer scientists in key areas such as security, technology, and engineering,” said Rundensteiner.

Rundensteiner noted that the nation needs experts who can focus on the development and improvement in areas such as sensor-driven smart cities, mobile-health applications, and learning technologies that will change the way teachers teach and students learn. “WPI is well poised to be helpful in this endeavor, as the university continues to increase its prominence in computer science training and research,” she added.

According to a recent report of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven of the 10 largest STEM occupations are computer related, and over the next decade there will be an even greater need for computer science professionals. The labor bureau also states that the employment of software developers is projected to grow twice as fast as other occupations.

“Employment of computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations,” according to the report, which added, “Computer scientists are practically guaranteed to enjoy excellent job prospects, because many companies report difficulties finding these highly skilled workers.”

Although the number of PhD graduates in computer science has grown slightly nationwide, there are still only about 2,000, in total,” said Rundensteiner. “Many PhD graduates enter industry or leave the country, while only a third stay in the United States to pursue academic careers, so the need is real.”

WPI’s Computer Science department currently includes 11 faculty members with data-driven computing research agendas. In addition, WPI has a budding new Data Science program, which has the distinction of offering the first interdisciplinary data science PhD degree in the nation.

The university has a long history of making contributions in the computer science arena. For instance, WPI was recognized this past February for creating a big data tool for the Massachusetts High Technology Council. Known as the Massachusetts’ Technology, Talent, and Economic Reporting System—or MATTERS—the web-enabled policy tool allows users to pull together and visually compare financial, educational, and technological data from states across the nation.

This year’s federal appropriation for GAANN awards was more than $23 million. WPI was just one of two Massachusetts universities to receive one. The other award was given to University of Massachusetts Amherst. WPI has previously received GAANN awards in computer science, biomedical engineering, and physics.

Karen Works, who has a PhD in computer science from WPI, had received funding through the GAANN program for her education and is now an assistant professor of computer and information science at Westfield State University.

Without the GAANN fellowship, I would not have had the financial means to return to get my doctorate degree and ultimately achieve my lifelong ambition of becoming a computer science college professor,” said Works. “GAANN has allowed me to now teach the next generation of computer scientists.”


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