Early Data Literacy Will Transform STEM Pipeline

Kirk Borne, a leading data scientist, said every student should learn basic coding skills to thrive in the modern workforce.

January 17, 2019

Kirk Borne

Kirk Borne, principal data scientist and executive adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton, speaks at Science and Engineering Hall on Tuesday. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

When he was a university professor, Kirk Borne found a new way to teach his STEM-weary students the fundamentals of data science. During the first week of class, he told them not to worry, he would teach them all the math they needed to know during the course of the semester.

After they mastered the subject, he filled them in on a secret: What they were doing was calculus—a subject many students were convinced they could never comprehend. The key to teaching a difficult subject is showing students why every step along the way is relevant, Dr. Borne said.

“I’ve seen cases where students who are shown the relevance of math or science to something they care about, and all the sudden they are jumping right in and learning it where just minutes before they declared they would never, ever want to learn this stuff,” said Dr. Borne, principal data scientist and executive adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton. “Once they see that in their life, I think that can break down barriers.”

Showing students how to connect data science skills to their daily lives is a challenge facing the field as it grooms the next generation of leaders. In a conversation with School of Business Dean Anuj Mehrotra, Dr. Borne spoke about the role of academia in supporting the growth of data science and the impact of Amazon’s decision to expand in the Washington, D.C., region.

The event was co-sponsored by the Office of Industry and Corporate Research, based in the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the GW Data Science Institute.

In the years since data science became a mainstream academic field, universities have established central cores for data science, such as GW’s Data Science Institute. These have been important steps in training future data scientists. More and more, however, data science courses have expanded into the curriculum for future journalists, medical professionals and artists.

Dr. Borne believes data analytics and machine learning are going to be important tools for every profession in the future, and that data scientists should encourage proliferation of these courses and shared faculty.

“Every discipline is now digital. These students need to learn the tools to do their job in the modern world,” he said. “The digital transformation that is happening and all those disciplines require people to have expertise in the discipline as well as the tools.”

Dr. Borne envisions a future where students start learning the fundamentals of data science as early as kindergarten. If coding and statistics are introduced at age appropriate levels, students will be able to build a strong foundation in data literacy and become proficient in major programming languages by the end of high school. This integration would lead to a “complete transformation” of the STEM pipeline, he said.

“If we don’t do this in the digital world, in the digital universe that these children are moving into… then we’re doing a huge disservice to the future population,” Dr. Borne said.

Amazon announced last year it will build one of its two second headquarters in Crystal City, a neighborhood of Arlington, Va. What types of data science jobs will be available at the Virginia site is still unknown, but Dr. Borne says he expects Amazon will lead to an energized technology incubator community similar to what is seen in Seattle.

“There’s no way we can avoid having an enrichment of our entire D.C. region around data and analytics,” he said. “Not just from what they’re doing, but the talent they will attract…the startups that will grow out of this ecosystem.”

Before joining Booz Allen Hamilton in 2015, Dr. Borne was a professor of astrophysics and computational science at George Mason University for 12 years, where he did research and taught students in the undergraduate and graduate data science programs. Dr. Borne previously spent nearly 20 years supporting data systems activities for NASA space science missions, including a role as NASA's archive project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope.