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UTSA's School of Data Science ready for students in January

UTSA’s new School of Data Science (SDS) is set to open in January 2023. The SDS is led by founding director David Mongeau, the former executive director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

The SDS will take up part of a six-story building named San Pedro I, which will also house the National Security Collaboration Center (NSCC) on its top two floors.

The first floor of San Pedro I will be open to the public and contains a multipurpose space, Mongeau said. It will have consistent programming for SDS students and faculty as well as the public.

“So you all will have everything from a musical performance to an art demo to an art exhibit to a student poster exhibit to faculty lectures,” he added.

Beyond that, there is a full service restaurant that will also be open to the public, with seating on a green space along San Pedro Creek. Moving toward the back of the first floor, there is a demo room that Mongeau said can be used by faculty and private businesses alike.

“In these areas, it could be a faculty member wanting to demonstrate some new discovery they have or some new application that they have,” Mongeau explained. “It could also be a company wanting to, say, make students aware of their data visualization tools and how they might use them to do their work.”

An informal gathering area on the first floor of San Pedro I, where students could sit on wide wooden stairs that ascend up to the second floor.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
An informal gathering area on the first floor of San Pedro I.

The first floor also contains a 300-person capacity conference center that will host the Academic Data Science Alliance in 2023.

The second and third floors will be used by the SDS for classrooms, faculty offices, labs, kitchens, lounges and the onsite data center, visible through a glass wall. In each of the floors there are open gathering spaces and atriums to let in natural light.

Several of the classrooms are connected, meaning they have the capabilities to reach students who are attending class remotely. Mongeau said this type of capability has proven to be a critical way to help students.

“There are seven connected classrooms in the building,” he explained. “Connected is important because we all learned through COVID the importance of supporting remote learning. And because we are a campus downtown — there's some distance with Main [Campus] — we can still reach students who are up on Main [Campus] through all these seven connected classrooms.”

When the SDS opens, it will host more than 400 graduate students in four master’s programs and a Ph.D. program in applied statistics, with plans to expand.

“If you take all the data science students at the university, that number goes up,” Mongeau said. “Because we have bachelor's programs, we have certificate programs, online programs. So that number will only grow.”

Mongeau said he left Berkeley to come to San Antonio because of UTSA’s diverse student population.

“When I considered the bold vision of UTSA and the student body at UTSA and how diverse it is, I thought this school could impact who gets to participate in the data economy,” Mongeau said. “Just for an example, if we look at our master's level students, 43%, I believe it could be 48%, are women.”

Mongeau also said that 35%-40% of the data science students at UTSA were first generation, Black or Latino — another high mark for the industry at large.

David Mongeau, the founding director of the School of Data Science.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
David Mongeau.

The new building enables UTSA’s data science program to bring in more students from the university to learn about data science and related career pathways, according to Mongeau.

“Simply by having the building, you've elevated the awareness, right?” Mongeau said. “So even a student who doesn't think about data science or even have maybe a concept of what it is now, you suddenly have a school. You have peer students who say they're going to that school. So having a building like this is simply elevated awareness.”

He said the building’s placement downtown also offers the opportunity to engage directly with the San Antonio community and local schools.

“We actually have plans and strategies for how to work with community groups, how to work with the high schools and so on, so that we are creating greater awareness in the community about data science and how much it can contribute to social mobility and personal and community gains,” Mongeau said.

Thirty core faculty will be at the SDS in January, many of them moving from the Carlos Alvarez College of Business, the College of Sciences, the University College and the Margie and Bill Kleese College of Engineering and Integrated Design. Mongeau said there will also be part-time space for faculty who are officially located in the Downtown and Main Campuses but who want to spend time at San Pedro I.

Though the fifth floor of the building is primarily for the government agencies involved with the NSCC, Mongeau said there are plenty of opportunities for students and faculty to interact with government employees.

“The idea is students take their classes — there are sitting areas, a kitchen and so on out in the hallways — they flow out of classes, people from the different government agencies are there to meet them, maybe come into their classes to speak,” Mongeau said. “It also will expose students to, as a government agency speaks to the students, all the opportunity for data science within the federal government.”

Because of the sensitive nature of some of the agencies’ work, he said the data center housed in San Pedro I had to meet government standards for security.

Mongeau said not all the tenants of the NSCC in San Pedro I had been decided yet, but several will be announced when the physical space officially opens in January. Currently, agencies such as the 16th Air Force — the Air Force’s cyber unit — and the NSA already contribute to the “NSCC strategic member ecosystem.”

According to Mongeau, ethics is a major point of discussion and education in the data analytics field, and one that features prominently in UTSA’s programs and competitions.

“Because part of the ethical considerations — and this came up in the datathon this weekend, it was very much part of this — is even when you gather data, you may be inadvertently addressing biases,” Mongeau said. “So you have to have that ethical consideration.”

What Mongeau said he really wants students, faculty, members of the public, government agencies and private businesses to get out of the space is a place for open, informal collaboration.

“We call it a purpose-built building because it was designed keeping in mind that we wanted not only workspace where research could occur and learning could occur, but where we could support the serendipity of innovation, where people would just bump into each other who might not normally,” Mongeau said.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Technology and Entrepreneurship News Fund including The 80/20 Foundation, Digital Defense, Rackspace, The Elmendorf Family Fund, UTSA Center for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship, SecureLogix, USAA and Giles Design Bureau.