Guest Column with Karl Schubert: January 2024

A graphic of a circular puzzle and cartoon hands each grasp one piece around the puzzle.



How Arkansas’ colleges and universities worked together to create a statewide data science ecosystem

Karl Schubert, Ph.D, FIET,
Professor of Practice and Associate Director of the Data Science Program for the College of Engineering, the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and the J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences, University of Arkansas

BACK AT THE end of 2017, I was leading a team tasked with creating the University of Arkansas’ new Bachelor of Science and Data Science program. While we were working on that, I had what in academia might seem like a radical idea—to get as many as possible of the state’s institutions of higher learning to work together to create a consistent statewide data science educational ecosystem, using UA’s new Bachelor of Science and Data Science curriculum as the template.

With the proliferation of programs across the state, and all of them being different, it’s very, very hard for an Arkansas student to get a consistent education. It’s also hard for a two-year student to transfer seamlessly to a four-year college, particularly in STEM. The idea I had was that we’re a small enough state that we could actually work together if we wanted to. But even more importantly, we’re small enough that we can’t afford not to work together.

For a year or so, I tossed this idea around in educational circles, seeing if I could get any traction. I initially met some resistance even from a few people here at UA Fayetteville: “Wouldn’t that be helping our competition?” they said. “No,” I said. “First of all, we have a land grant mission here. Part of the land-grant mission is that as Arkansas’ flagship university, it’s our role to help the other educational institutions in the state be successful. That’s number one. Number two, there’s no way in the world that we can turn out enough graduates here to fill the thousands of open data science jobs in this state. It’s just not possible.

“And number three, we’re not going to get every student anyway. The students who come to the U of A Fayetteville are coming here because maybe their parents came here, because of the things we offer, because they’re huge Razorback fans—whatever the attraction is. But there are also those who traditionally look to University of Central Arkansas, or to Arkansas State, or to SAU Magnolia, or to Arkansas Tech. There’s something that draws them there. If we really believe strongly in our land-grant mission, I think it’s our role to lead the way, but to lead in a manner that is collaborative, not competitive. That means we’re all sitting on the same side of the table.”

That was the message I set out to spread. Sometime in 2018, Jennifer Fowler, Director of Arkansas’ National Science Foundation EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), introduced me to Dr. Stephen Addison at UCA. Conversations with Steve led to talks with both Steve and ACDS’ Bill Yoder, both of whom thought that collaborating instead of competing was a really good idea. Soon we were discussing it with employers across the state, the people needing a steady stream of consistently trained tech talent. In late 2018, we formed our Advisory Council, comprised of employers, educators, and other stakeholders throughout Arkansas.

Then, roughly at the same time, Jennifer invited us to write a theme into the EPSCOR proposal that was being developed. The idea was to describe this initiative and get some funding for it. Jennifer wrote the section on K through 12, and I wrote on post-secondary education. In the fall of 2019, we learned that we got the grant.

By then, Steve Addison and I were already working with schools across Arkansas. We designed this joint curriculum as an opt-in. We weren’t going to go to all these other schools and tell them, “You’ve got to do this.” But if they did want to be part of the ecosystem and receive all the materials we had to share, they had to agree to play by the rules. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it.

We held our first workshop at UA Little Rock in September 2019. Steve and I ran the program, and we invited colleges and universities from all over the state, plus teachers and students from high schools. We had breakout sessions designed to help us get a sense of what people would be interested in doing and whether they would want to opt in or not. At the end of the day, we got everybody back together and the reaction was that this is really something we need to do. I had taken all my faculty down with us too, so UA Fayetteville was well represented.

We held our second statewide meeting at UCA in November of 2019. Laura Berry from North Arkansas College in Harrison sat next to me and our associate dean. “I want to be the first one to do this,” she said. “I want to be the first partner to opt in.” She was, in fact, the first adopter. We provided her with materials and she began the process of putting together her lesson plans and working toward getting curriculum approvals. She secured approvals in 2022 and actually began teaching a couple of courses to students that fall.


ACADEMIA IS NOT known for its ability to change on a dime. I remember, in about 2020, our Advisory Council saying, “You guys are moving too slow!” “Honestly,” I told them, “for academia, we’re moving at the speed of light.” We conceived the idea in 2017 and were teaching the curriculum to educators around the state by the fall of 2020. Today we’re working with some 20 schools, at various levels, to help them develop AS degrees and develop the necessary certifications.

Has it been easy? No way. First of all, COVID interrupted our early in-person teaching sessions, and for a while we had to make do with virtual classes. Since then, we’ve discovered that maybe we were trying to teach the teachers the wrong way. We held a couple of pedagogical workshops in Fayetteville, and when they came back for the second session, we couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t seemed to learn the material. We figured out that teaching the teachers how to teach the material only works if they really know the subjects they’re going to teach. So last summer, we changed it up—we started teaching the teachers the material as though they were students, and that worked a lot better. You’ve got to fully absorb the subject you’re teaching before you can teach it effectively.

As I write this, Steve and his team and I and mine are lining up the schools that would like us to visit them for a day and a half this spring and summer to help them brush up on the content for teaching their classes virtually. We’re working to upskill the faculty and instructors at the schools in the ecosystem to be able to bring programs and certificates online. These are schools from all over the state, ranging from HBCUs to two-year and four-year colleges.

The way we’ve designed it, the two-year colleges could create dual-credit courses based on our courses and theirs. The students could take that and get a first-year course credit for going anywhere in our ecosystem. The ecosystem is designed as a hub and spoke model; the four-year schools are the hubs and the two-year schools are the spokes. We planned it that way because we know that two-year college students tend to go to school close to where their families live, particularly those attending HBCUs and the minority serving institutions. But they can take those credits earned at the two-year schools and continue their next two years at a four-year hub in their particular vicinity—or anywhere in the state, for that matter. They don’t have to stay close to home, but a four-year school is nearby if they want to.

The official signing ceremony for this “two plus two” program took place back in the fall of 2023, and now, in 2024, we’re continuing to move ahead on several fronts. Back in 2021, I got invited to lead a team to create a data science pathway in the computer science curriculum in the high schools—a feeder pipeline for the two-plus-two program. And now our Advisory Council, having spent some time last year meeting with our first couple of data science graduate cohorts, is satisfied that we’ve established a solid statewide Bachelor’s degree program; next they want us to start building a Master’s and Doctorate curriculum. Further out is the establishment of a Data Science School here in Arkansas that would be the destination of choice for data science students in the heartland.


IT’S AMUSING TO me (and a bit of a sad commentary on academic life) that when people see Steve Addison and me sitting next to each other at various conferences, they’re surprised. “I still can’t believe you two sit next to each other,” said Tina Moore, director of workforce development for the Arkansas Division of Higher Education, at a recent meeting. “You seem to like each other.” She said it with a smile.

We do like each other. And we’re proud of what we and our partner schools throughout the state have worked together to create. We’ve joined together to build a program that makes our graduates workforce ready on day one. That’s a good thing for the industries in the state. Arkansas employers are able to know that the graduates they hire, from wherever, are going to have a common set of skills—the very skills that our Advisory Council considers necessary for their new hires and interns to have. I can tell you that the Arkansas Division of Education really likes what we’ve done, because we’re helping everyone rise to meet the increasing need for data science.

And let’s not forget what this is doing for the tech talent in our state. This ecosystem that we’ve collaborated to create will continue to produce a workforce whose salary range is very high, because data science workers are in great demand. In fact, last year, for the first time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) separated data science out of the more general category that was included with business analytics and statistics and so on. Data science now is its own category for the BLS to track.

Knowledge is power. But sharing knowledge can be even more powerful.