Barracuda continues the recent tradition of Maine EPSCoR grants partnering with Upward Bound

By Stefania Irene Marthakis

Biodiversity and Rural Response to Climate Change Using Data Analysis (Barracuda)—made possible through a four-year, $4 million (RII Track-2 FEC) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—has partnered with the Upward Bound program here at the University of Maine (UMaine).  

Upward Bound, a U.S. Department of Education grant, creates opportunities for high school students from lower income and first-generation college-going backgrounds to gain academic skills as well as soft skills needed to prepare and be successful in college. 

Matthew Dube, Assistant Professor in Computer Information Systems and Data Science at the University of Maine Augusta as well as Co-PI of the Barracuda project, is shepherding Barracuda’s work force development component that focuses on the development of an interdisciplinary data science curriculum to build data skills in various areas such as ecology, specifically looking at high school students as they enter an undergraduate program in this iteration.  

Since Dube has been working with students through UMaine’s Upward Bound Math Science Program for 11 years, it was a natural fit for Dube to champion Upward Bound through his work on Barracuda. 

“Matt has brought wonderful ideas and energy to our program, and sometimes pushed us academically in a direction that we wouldn’t have been able to do without his support,” Director of UMaine’s Upward Bound program, Rebecca Colannino said. 

With an additional small sub-award from CUE.NEXT, Dube and fellow Co-PI Nicholas Gotelli (UVM Professor of Biology) are looking at what data skills are essential for college-bound students to learn. Merging their computation and biology resources, Dube and Gotelli presented their data science boot camp program at the National Data Science Education Workshop in June of 2021 through the University of California, Berkeley. Dube then piloted the data boot camp program during the final week of Upward Bound’s 2021 summer program on UMaine’s campus (Upward Bound’s usual 6-week residential summer program was adjusted due to Covid-19 with five weeks being virtual and one week in-person). 

Eight Upward Bound students stand together in their group before a chalkboard
Group of Upward Bound students. Back row from left to right: Aidan Currie. Cole Merchant, Destinee McLain, Charlotte Triebl Front row from left to right: Whitney St. Pierre, Marina McCafferty, Elexis Judkins, Kelsey Loggans, Sonia Ulemba

Colannino explained, “The final week of the program (UBLive) followed a more traditional Upward Bound model hosting a residential program at the University of Maine. Student groups, led by Upward Bound staff, dug into datasets in the following topics: air quality, water quality, earthquakes and volcanoes, nutrition, bee habits, colors, and The Big Five Personality Inventory.  The student groups presented their findings on the final day of the program.” 

This is only stage one for Barracuda’s outreach program and in Dube’s overall goal of creating a more data literate society, one that also incorporates the human factors that go into this field of study. Dube hopes that eventually the data science curriculum developed as part of Barracuda will then be useful with undergraduates, graduates, and even faculty, helping them to gain the necessary data skills in fields such as ecology and agriculture. 

“My work goes to solve some of the data issues that exist in the general population,” Dube said. “I’m interested in data literacy and understanding how different aspects of data are fundamental to how we live today and trying to work through this idea that we’re in a world where we can’t be orphaned from that. Data is everywhere.” 

Dube continues, “The purpose of doing grants like this for the public is to try to build that infrastructure and capacity for people to see how things like data science are meaningful and what they can do for you.”