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CAES launches Certificate in Agricultural Data Science

Data collected by remote moisture sensors, drone-mounted cameras and automated weather stations are changing will fuel the next agricultural revolution. University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences will launch a new graduate Interdisciplinary Certificate in Agricultural Data Science this fall. (Photo by Clint Thompson)

From remote moisture sensors that produce a real-time feed of soil conditions to drones that use optical data to spot plant disease, new streams of data will fuel the next green revolution.

Remote sensing technologies will offer farmers the ability to customize irrigation and fertilizer applications for areas that have unique characteristics within fields, which will reduce ecological impacts and costs. However, putting precision agriculture strategies into practice requires agricultural scientists who are equipped to interpret the data that these sensors generate.

In fall 2018, the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences will launch an Interdisciplinary Certificate in Agricultural Data Science to equip CAES graduate students with the data analysis expertise that they will need to capitalize on this big data revolution.

“In other disciplines—business and health care—programs that are focused on data science have already taken off,” said Harald Scherm, professor and head of UGA’s department of plant pathology. “But there is no such formal program in agricultural data science. We think there is a need for that.”

CAES’ certificate program will be one of the first of its kind in the nation.

CAES faculty have heard from students, researchers and employers that there is a need for data analysis expertise in agricultural research and applied agricultural science, said Scherm, who worked with colleagues in the UGA statistics and computer science departments and in the UGA College of Engineering to develop the certificate program.

Through the certificate, current and future CAES graduate students will plan a schedule of elective and related courses that will complement their agricultural research and expose them to a wide range of principles and practices of data analysis.

“The goal of the graduate certificate is to develop a curriculum that will produce cross-disciplinary and cross-functional, data-smart graduates who can bridge the gaps between the generation, analysis and interpretation of complex data in the agricultural field,” Scherm said. “We’re not looking to train computer scientists, but we want them to be able to discuss data issues and incorporate analysis into their practice.”

A summer 2017 survey of CAES graduate students showed that almost 90 percent were interested in the certificate program, and almost 50 percent said they were definitely interested in learning to integrate big data science into their disciplines. The certificate program will be open to all graduate students at UGA but will be most helpful to those studying agriculture or environmental sciences, Scherm said.

CAES’ Interdisciplinary Certificate in Agricultural Data Science will leverage UGA’s strength in agricultural research and UGA’s campus-wide informatics initiative to build a reputation as a leader in agricultural data science, Scherm said. Elective courses will be drawn from four colleges (CAES, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences) and two institutes (GII and Institute of Bioinformatics).

Many areas of agricultural research and practice generate big data streams, from consumer analytics to crop modeling, statistical genetics and precision agriculture, among others. Precision agriculture refers to farming in which data, collected from an ever-expanding array of sensors ranging from satellites to soil-moisture sensors, helps farmers decide how to vary the application of agricultural inputs like irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers within a field to meet crop needs rather than applying these inputs uniformly across the field.

This more judicious approach to using inputs is critical to helping farms increase their efficiency and profitability while reducing their ecological footprint, said George Vellidis, precision agriculture researcher, professor of crop and soil sciences, and director of academic programs at the UGA Tifton campus.

“With the increasing number of sensors that we use on a daily basis in agriculture, we are collecting terabytes of data each growing season, and precision agriculture has morphed into information agriculture,” Vellidis said. “At the moment, we do not have the systems in place to fully mine these tremendous data sets and capture all the knowledge that is embedded in them. Our certificate will allow our graduates to do this.”

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