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TACC STEM Partnership Wins NSF INCLUDES Grant

Published on September 11, 2017 by Faith Singer-Villalobos

Chaminade students, Kaikaline McCarthy and Edward Cordasco, in science laboratory.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin today announced a $300,000 award for "Supporting Pacific Indigenous Computing Excellence (SPICE)." Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) initiative, the SPICE project will enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discoveries and innovations by focusing on diversity, inclusion, and broadening participation in these fields.

"Broadening participation in STEM is necessary for the United States to retain its position as the world's preeminent source of scientific innovation," said NSF Director France Cordova.

"The National Science Foundation has a long history of working to address difficult challenges by creating the space for inventive solutions. NSF INCLUDES breaks new ground by providing a sustained commitment to collaborative change with the goal of bringing STEM opportunities to more people and more communities across the country," Cordova said.

NSF INCLUDES is among the organization's "10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments" research agendas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering.

As part of the two-year INCLUDES SPICE pilot beginning September 1, 2017, and ending on August 30, 2019, TACC will partner with Chaminade University of Honolulu (CUH) and Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, & Computing (GIT-CEISMC).

"Agency over ‘big data' sets, and contemporary skills in data science, analytics and visualization are the next frontier in educational disparities for this population of students. For example, students will learn how to conduct data analytics so they can do visual reasoning."
Kelly Gaither, Principal Investigator of the project and Director of Visualization at TACC
The vision of "Supporting Pacific Indigenous Computing Excellence" is to train a cadre of high school and undergraduate students, particularly Native Hawai'ian and Pacific Islanders (NHPI), who will lead data science, visualization and analytics efforts that support health, sustainability and social justice in Hawai'i and the US-affiliated Pacific. Workforce development efforts in the state of Hawai'i have identified data science and computational careers as key to the state's economic diversification and development going forward.

"Students in these communities are underrepresented in STEM fields, and specifically in cutting-edge data science, which limits self-determination," said Kelly Gaither, principal investigator of the project and director of Visualization at TACC. "NHPI are broadly disenfranchised from STEM. In all areas of society, the digital divide is troubling, but for STEM education, it creates a new challenge."

According to Gaither, these students will gain access to, and develop the ability to work with, large data sets, which will help provide solutions to current and emerging problems in the Pacific such as health inequities, natural resource management, and economic development.

"Agency over ‘big data' sets that are relevant to Pacific issues, and contemporary skills in data science, analytics and visualization are the next frontier in educational disparities for this population of students," Gaither said. "For example, students will learn how to conduct data analytics so they can do visual reasoning."

The program will serve as a systematic effort to provide undergraduate preparation in data science, analytics and visualization in the few minority-serving, non-research intensive institutions whose missions address educational disparities.

"SPICE will establish a model for data science preparation that is contemporary, culturally-consistent and sustainable," said Helen Turner, a professor of biology, vice president for Innovation at CUH, and chief education officer of the project.

"Students in the region face severe challenges in health, poverty, environmental resilience, and the erosion of traditional culture. These issues have been the focus of numerous programs to increase STEM participation, and they are of high importance," Turner said.

SPICE is based on unique expertise and proven models established by TACC, CUH and GIT-CEISMC. TACC is an internationally recognized advanced computing, data science, and visualization center leading strategic diversity and outreach programs. CUH has undergone a striking institutional transformation in recent years with its mission-driven effort to become a leader in science education for indigenous populations in the Pacific. GIT-CEISMC has a world-class evaluation team with extensive experience with underserved populations.

"Analyzing and applying big data has the potential to change lives in Hawai'i for the better, and we want our students to be part of that better future."
Helen Turner, Professor of Biology, Vice President for Innovation at CUH, and Chief Education Officer of the project
"The long-term goal is to develop the TACC-CUH-GIT partnership into a backbone organization that can frame the current and future efforts as an NSF INCLUDES Alliance," Gaither said.

SPICE has three goals: 1) perform original research and program development to bridge computation and culture; 2) implement a Data Science, Analytics and Visualization Summer Immersion Experience; and 3) build capacity in data science at a NHPI-serving undergraduate institution through the development of an undergraduate Certificate in Data Science.

The program will significantly improve curriculum, research and indigenous participation in data science in the Pacific region. For the Summer Immersion Experience, SPICE will train 25 high school students and undergraduates, drawing from the Federated State of Micronesia, Guam, American Samoa, Saipan, and the Marshall Islands. A new Certificate in Data Science will be developed, providing STEM majors at CUH the opportunity to be certified in these competency areas.

"These activities will begin to lessen the digital divide that threatens these communities at the structural level, while CUH and Pacific anthropology faculty will address the cultural divide that threatens NHPI participation in this emergent STEM field," Turner said. "Through engaging community and family in all aspects of the project, we seek to address the alienation and outsider status that are often the lived experience of these students who choose STEM careers."

The pilot phase will integrate the planned expansion to scale the SPICE program, with a strategy to engage all students in the region. SPICE will use advanced computing for social change relevant to these communities, bridging cultural and Western knowledge, and empowering indigenous self-determination.

According to Turner, curricula emphasizing the role of big data for ‘social good' in information education settings have demonstrated success at engaging greater proportions of women and underrepresented minorities.

"Analyzing and applying big data has the potential to change lives in Hawai'i for the better," Turner said, "and we want our students to be part of that better future."

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