Morehouse School of Medicine student Kaylin Carey (right) discusses how data science software can help with her research. UnitedHealth Group is investing $8.25 million over five years into data science education at that school and other Atlanta University Center Consortium campuses. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

$8.25 million to Atlanta’s HBCUs seen as ‘big data’ pipeline investment

Joshua Atkins remembers business leaders telling him during his second year at Morehouse College that many students there lacked the data skills necessary to excel at their companies.

Atkins was motivated, he said, “to be on the other side of that trend.”

A year later, Atkins took a data analytics course on campus and got an internship at Accenture. This fall, the 21-year-old Morehouse College graduate said he’ll be working at the global consulting firm.

Data science — using math, science and statistics to solve problems — is one of the highest in-demand careers, but educators and business leaders say there are not enough African Americans in the industry (about 7%, some say). UnitedHealth Group announced Tuesday it is investing $8.25 million over the next five years toward an effort to enhance data science education at Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities.

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UnitedHealth Group leaders and the schools began discussing a partnership about two years ago, officials said. Four schools — Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College — will participate in the effort.

“I’m now looking at these talented young leaders gathered here today as a new generation that can help us responsibly unleash the power of big data,” said UnitedHealth Group CEO David S. Wichmann.

Atlanta University Center Consortium leaders say the money will be used for scholarships and software to improve the technological capabilities across the schools. The schools will also offer certificates for midcareer professionals. All four schools currently have courses related to data science, but none offer a degree. The schools are working on next steps in how to best offer data science coursework or degrees.

Morehouse School of Medicine President Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice presents a gift to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an event on July 2, 2019, announcing UnitedHealth Group is investing $8.25 million over five years into data science education at the Atlanta University Center. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The students have ideas for using data science to address issues such as health disparities in underserved communities locally and globally. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at Tuesday’s event that the work will be important, noting the city’s high HIV rates.

“I cannot stress how impactful this will be on our city,” she said.

Students who’ve taken data science courses or use the technology said they can envision working on projects to improve things that bother all college students, such as improving the financial aid process or on-campus housing. Students like Clark Atlanta University senior Michael English have used the technology to do research that could reduce airport passenger wait times.

“I learned how big data is the next thing,” said English, 26.

Many African American students enroll in college with little expertise in data-related subjects. Todd Greene, the consortium’s executive director, said about one-third of predominantly African American high schools don’t offer algebra or calculus courses that teach students skills they’ll need for college data science courses.

“We need to also work on our pipeline,” Greene said.

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Nationally, there are a labor gap and a skills gap, Wichmann said. Job postings for data scientists rose 29% between December 2017 and December 2018, according to an Indeed report. The University of Georgia last September became the first school in the University System of Georgia to offer an undergraduate major in data science. The new program will begin with its first cohort of undergraduates in the fall semester of 2019, officials said.

UnitedHealth Group has about 35,000 technologists and health data specialists, Wichmann said. He’s hoping the company’s investment will, in part, pay off with future hires from racially diverse backgrounds.

During one meeting between students and faculty, Morehouse School of Medicine doctoral student Kaylin Carey said she was unaware of some of the data research tools being used by Spelman’s biology department.

“I can learn something from you and maximize what I know,” said Carey, 24, whose interest in cancer biology was sparked after her grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

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The initiative highlights efforts by the schools to establish major academic partnerships, which leaders there say are necessary as operational costs rise at college campuses.

The partnerships are also necessary to conduct top-tier research, said Greene.

“We want to be a hub for other HBCUs … and for some of the research questions that face black America,” Greene said.

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