Earlier this month, thousands turned out across U.S. cities, and millions more across every continent, to call on political leaders to take action on climate change. The “School Strike for Climate” was led by teen activist Greta Thunberg, who also testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Climate Crisis Committee and the Foreign Affairs subcommittee earlier in the week. Rather than offer prepared remarks, she attached as testimony a landmark 2018 United Nations report.

“I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg said. “I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action.”

The report, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned of dire consequences for the planet if the atmosphere warmed to greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We know exactly how much the planet — and even individual countries — have warmed since NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center and the UK Meteorological Office’s Hadley Centre began officially tracking temperature records in 1880.

Sled dogs traversing through melted water atop an ice sheet in Greenland.
This image was taken June 13, 2019 by Danish scientist Steffen Olsen in northwest Greenland, where the dogs were traversing an ice sheet roughly four feet thick in order to retrieve oceanographic and weather monitoring devices. (Danmarks Meteorologiske Institut/Steffen M. Olsen via AP).

Advances in technology have enabled the collection of temperature data using satellites and floating thermometers distributed throughout the world’s oceans. These data sets confirm that earth is warming — but most alarming is that the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the world. The sources and methodologies used to determine Earth’s temperature continue to improve and today produce the most accurate, up-to-date data and is giving us ever more useful and precise information. The data clearly indicates that our planet is under extreme duress, and human activity is the primary cause.

It is said that the amount of available data in the world doubles every two years — an amazing fact! The good news is that we can use this vast amount of data to improve the quality of life around the world. Industry uses this data to design products and services that will make our lives easier and more comfortable. Social media and the internet allow us to communicate and share information on an almost instant basis. This ability to gather, process and interpret data — Data Science — has the potential to profoundly improve the quality of life for all of us.

This is why we chose Data Impact as the theme of the 2020 ABET Symposium, our flagship event for accreditation, assessment and the global exchange of best practices in STEM education. At ABET, we know our role is far greater than ensuring the quality of educational programs. Together with our academic partners, we help create educational experiences that improve student learning, while ensuring graduates are prepared to enter the global workforce and tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

Seine River overflowing Paris

Climate change and the many other global challenges we face are not only technologically based. They are first and foremost human challenges, and to effectively address them, we must first understand their human context. Data science allows us to develop meaningful solutions to these societal challenges.

In the 21st century, the impact of data has become a pervasive force — one that has indisputably touched every aspect of our lives. The computer programs that determine Google search results and detect fraudulent credit card charges are all designed around intelligent algorithms fueled by data, but machines aren’t the only ones responsible for synthesizing data.

Data science has become an increasingly popular field of study in recent years. Knowing how to accurately collect and interpret it without bias is a skill valuable to all industries. In higher education, it is already reshaping the educational model and student experience, but with access to data comes a new set of opportunities and ethical responsibilities. I’m looking forward to discussing Data Science and its impact on higher education at the 2020 ABET Symposium. Our call for proposals is now open, so if you’re interested in joining this unique conversation or have some valuable insights to share, we want to hear from you. See you Nashville!