Change the world


Computational and data science is a new essential language, and all students and graduates today need to be versed in computational thinking and data-handling skills.

These are the building blocks of the current and future world of work and they apply to every discipline and profession.

Universities are leading the way in ensuring these Fourth Industrial Revolution and Society 5.0 must-haves are part of the higher education fabric.

This is how we will create a human-led and human-inspired future, which is what Society 5.0 is about, combining the best of technology and the best of human creativity and thinking abilities.

If we look at the convergence of data with the advent of computational storage and cognitive power, we see it transforming society at every level, creating opportunities that were once unimaginable – from major discoveries through advanced scientific computing to education, health, agriculture, engineering, media, manufacturing and services.

New computing technologies can be used to help solve the challenges expressed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the Africa Agenda 2063, a blueprint for development, and the National Development Plan.

Hence, the recently gazetted South African White Paper on Science Technology and Innovation calls on higher education to create an environment for learning computation and programming for all students.

The future of understanding

As the head of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University’s (NMU) department of statistics, Dr Warren Brettenny, puts it, “data sits in every field and we need to understand it in order to improve it”.

In the past, we have been happy to accept the expertise of others in the data field but, today, “data literacy is as important as any other literacy,” says Brettenny.

It’s about critical thinking, which is not new to the university environment; the whole purpose of being at university is to think for yourself and be analytical, but the method of being analytical is changing.

The future is out there waiting for us to discover. This is the future of our planet, which includes climate change, our biosphere, our demographics and the future of us as humans, which very much includes our digital world of artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, the cloud, the Internet of Things, and cyber security.

It is also the future of our understanding of the universe and its wonders.

Imagine travelling through time to observe the Earth’s global climate as it changes or travelling back to the birth of space and time.

Scientists today can explore these realms, thanks to a 100-fold increase in computing power, software and algorithms delivered in the past decade.

Testament to the ingenuity of our species and our infinite curiosity is the first ever photograph taken of a black hole in the universe, revealed on 10 April 2019.

This could only be done by leveraging the power of big data and computational storage.

When the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope in the Northern Cape province of South Africa starts to collect data from various corners of the universe, there should be enough data scientists to reap the benefit one of the world’s most powerful scientific instruments.

If we haven’t, then countries with prepared data scientists will.

Embedding data science in learning, teaching

As part of the vision and strategy of the faculty of science at NMU we are committed to using and advancing advanced scientific computing to make impactful breakthroughs and discoveries for the benefit of society. In 2020, we launched a monthly, open platform Computing and Data Forum workshop for academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and anyone who is interested.

We want people to participate and share their ideas on computational and data science, the use of a variety of programming languages and tools and how this can be embedded into learning and teaching; research and innovation and public engagement with science at university and school level.

The first workshop was held online in July, 2020 with more than 50 participants, including speakers from NMU, Politecnico di Torino, Italy, and the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa.

We have experts on the forum discussing, how, for example, to improve the teaching of computational and data science to students and learners; how to digitalise science labs and teaching spaces to save time and give greater numbers of students access to lab time.

Instead of spending three hours in the lab, students can spend one hour and the other two hours analysing the data collected. We are also discussing the benefits of e-research and e-engagement.

Our university’s Director of the Centre for Broadband Communication, Professor Tim Gibbon, is piloting a digital studios programme where you can learn anywhere, in your own time while interacting with 24/7 tutors. This is being extended to high school maths and science advancement.

With robotics and artificial intelligence, there are a whole lot of software and programming languages that can be embedded into teaching and learning to help students with their visualisation of concepts taught in class and laboratories.

This is of untold benefit to students who have never been exposed to computers before or certain concepts in maths and science classes.

The teaching tools include basic Excel, Python, R, Java, C/C++, MATLAB, and Wolfram Mathematica, depending on the application and skills to be developed.

One of the presenters for the forum, Clemens Dempers, CEO of Blue Stallion Technologies, explains that Wolfram Mathematica is not just a tool for mathematicians; it can be used by scientists, teachers, lawyers, engineers, artists, architects.

It has been used to compose music, for example, and in literature it has been used to determine whether, for example, Shakespeare is likely to have written a newly discovered play.

It identifies patterns in Shakespeare’s writing and determines whether this characteristic signature pattern is repeated in the unknown work.

The essence of what all this indicates is that the way we view and discuss computing and data science and technology needs to change.

We need to stop thinking of it as some external force determining our future. We need to deepen our understanding of the way in which they connect with one another and impact all disciplines and society, and how we can influence and improve them.

This article appeared on University World News on 24 February 2022 written by Professor Azwinndini Muronga, the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University and Dr Adeniyi Ogunlaja, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the same university, and Chair of the Computing and Data Science Forum committee.


Contact information
Prof Azwinndini Muronga
Executive Dean: Faculty of Science