As COVID-19 gripped the nation last spring and graduates shuddered at the thought of a pandemic job market, three professors from Western’s Huxley College of the Environment came together to create a cure for some of those fears: the Data Science for Environmental Applications certificate program.
The work of three faculty members in the Environmental Science department, Jenise Bauman, Rebecca Bunn and Andy Bunn, culminated in a nine-month-long certificate course intended to give participants tangible and valuable data skills; the program's first cohort finished the program this past school year.
According to Andy Bunn, the new certificate program is designed to fill the needs of a workforce and job market eager for new graduates with an ability to take on data, in its many forms.
“We’ve heard from graduates that the statistical classes they get are great, but the real world challenge of wrestling with data is something we could do a better job of providing,” he said.
Their work resulted in 17 current graduate and undergraduate students enrolling in the course, as well as professionals from across the nation, and according to Bauman, the certificate is intended to give graduates a leg up in their job searches.
“We wanted this to be a nice ‘gem in the crown’ of graduates that are going to be competing in a job market that is likely to be saturated,” Bauman said.
Through the asynchronous and remote program, participants take one course a quarter which includes applied statistics, multivariate methods and time series or spatial analysis. Quarterly seminars also cover topics like data wrangling and visualization, machine learning and app or dashboard development.
Rebecca Bunn said she sees it as a ‘starter pack’ for students that want to enrich their data analysis and interpretation abilities.
Skills like these allow students to carve out a ‘niche’ in whatever field they’re pursuing, Bauman said. As such, the program is open to anyone regardless of their major.
Along with learning statistical methods and data visualization, the program became a community where students could network across disciplines.
After connecting with another classmate over Discord, Skyler Elmstrom, a 2020 Western graduate, was able to learn about and apply for a data science job. Now, he works as a data scientist and engineer with the Washington State Department of Health.
As someone who collects, analyzes and distributes data about outbreaks for the department daily, Elmstrom said he relies heavily on the skills he learned in the certificate program.
“I’m working with several other people who are working with code every day. Being able to communicate with them in a language they understand is so helpful,” Elmstrom said.
For him, the course wasn’t just about interpreting and understanding data; it also taught him valuable soft skills that have helped him thrive in his new role.
“One of the most important things I learned was realizing when and where to ask for help,” Elmstrom said.
Even as the return to in-person learning approaches, the program will remain online and asynchronous. Letting not only students but working professionals from in and outside the state participate is a key facet of the program Bauman and the Bunns don’t want to lose.
“When we think of inclusion, we want to extend our programming from Bellingham into areas that have been historically underrepresented with regard to undergraduate and graduate opportunities in higher education,” Bauman said.
To ensure that mission is met, Bauman and the Bunns are working to expand the program with more funds and faculty behind it. While their requests for university and legislative support are in the early stages, they’re hopeful.
“The more educational pathways for students who are place-bound provides a sense of equity through education for our Washington residents,” Bauman said.
Applications for the next year of the Data Science for Environmental Applications certificate program are open until Aug. 1, and more information can be found on the program’s website.