The Data Science for the 21st Century (DS421) program at UC Berkeley was awarded the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Program in 2015. This was the first cycle of funding for the new NRT Program, the priority research theme for the solicitation was Data-Enabled Science and Engineering (DESE). During the development and writing of the DS421 proposal, the faculty were invested in the prospect of learning from each other and the selected graduate student trainees. An underlying goal for many of the faculty was for they themselves to gain and strengthen their data science skills at a time when the analysis of large data sets from different aspects of human-natural systems were becoming the norm in addressing issues related to environmental change. With common data science needs, as well as, overlapping research questions across water resource management, regional land use, and the impact of economic and climate factors on agriculture, the faculty wrote the NRT proposal to create a space to support learning data science tools to drive research.
During the implementation of the DS421 program three types of faculty learning occurred in the NRT program: 1) sharing disciplinary knowledge, 2) developing leadership skills, and 3) navigating institutional boundaries. Although the characterizations of each type of learning are intertwined, each exemplifies a unique way in which NRT programs can support faculty development.
The DS421 program brought together faculty with deep disciplinary knowledge from nine different departments across the UC Berkeley. Each home department provided a different working experience for the faculty which in turn influenced their approach to science. The participating departments may or may not consider themselves inherently interdisciplinary or to have an interdisciplinary culture, yet the DS421 program offered the opportunity for faculty to share their disciplinary knowledge with people outside their given departments. In the case of the NRT, cross-interdisciplinary conversations targeted the knowledge needed to address a research question, therefore the flow of knowledge was often uneven. This is fundamentally different than simply swapping information, as it is offering ideas for others to consider for their own questions. For faculty, the co-creation of curriculum, co-teaching, project review and student advising provided places to contribute their knowledge and ask questions outside their departments. These opportunities were not structured specifically for faculty development but faculty involvement in these activities contributed to an intellectual hub around common interests.
Along with deep disciplinary knowledge the faculty recognized the need for the integration of data science training into graduate education. The development of leadership skills started with the process of bringing faculty together from different departments to write this graduate training proposal. Faculty who were involved were selected because of their interest in the intellectual space and for their willingness to collaborate outside their departments. Working outside their departments required them to contribute their time to the common good. The proposal was successfully funded, providing faculty the insight of what was possible with cross departmental collaboration. At the same time, faculty found supportive colleagues and advocates for their work. Further, the administration of the program provided an ongoing example of how to go about gathering support for an idea among faculty, supporting faculty needs, and maintaining the momentum to get things done.
Navigating Institutional Boundaries
The NRT program allows faculty to propose structures that intersect the borders of institutional entities and extend the space for faculty to work. In the space created by DS421, faculty combined the application of varying perspectives on graduate training and approaches to doing research with the common need for data science skills. Faculty participation increased their institutional knowledge of how other departments work, how the university works, and what the opportunities and challenges are within and across both. This institutional knowledge allows faculty to better pursue the seeds of ideas and build relationships outside the current structures of the institution. Faculty become advocates for their own careers and conversant in the university politics, opening doors for themselves and for their students.
NRT programs drive faculty to investigate new avenues of knowledge, develop into leaders and transcend instructional structures. These are added benefits of the NRT programs which are often focused on student learning.