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UW-Madison Breaking Ground With New Data Science Program

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is building a radically inclusive vision of Big Tech.

By Livability on September 19, 2022

Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison

Growing up in rural Wisconsin in the 1970s, a “quirk of fate” became the opportunity of a lifetime for Tom Erickson. 

A computer was installed in his school. 

“There wasn’t even a teacher who knew how to use it,” Erickson recalls. “I taught myself, and the janitor would let me in on the weekends.” 

It was the spark that fired a successful tech career that took him around the world. 

“It was an amazing thing that this town could rally around one kid,” he says. “I want a lot more kids to have the opportunity that I had.” 

Now, Erickson is making good on that vision as founding director of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences (CDIS). 

CDIS brings together world-class faculty, a booming student body and renewed focus on industry engagement all within a spectacular new state-of-the-art facility, with donors and private partners like the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation contributing a multimillion dollar investment to help make it happen. 

Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison
Tom Erickson, CDIS Founding Director (left); Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau, Grace Wahba Professor and Chair of Computer Sciences; and Kristin Eschenfelder, CDIS Associate Director and Information School Professor.

CDIS programs are designed not only to grow students in the core disciplines, but to provide broad exposure to data and computational thinking across campus. 

Think of it as tech education without borders. And it’s working. Enrollment in entry level computer science classes grew 23% this year alone. Data science has become one of the fastest-growing majors here, and CDIS certificates (akin to a minor) are some of the most popular on campus. 

“In the information age, everybody deserves to know how to use computing data,” Erickson says. “We have to close the digital skills gap.” 

Ultimately, the state’s workforce depends on it. 

“In the future every company will be a tech company at some level,” says Remzi Arpaci- Dusseau, chair of Computer Sciences at UW-Madison. “They are fundamentally going to be using computing and data to drive big parts of their business.” 

In and beyond the classroom, CDIS can play a role. It recently partnered with an insurance firm to train employees in cloud computing. 

CDIS can benefit the state in many ways, says Professor Arpaci-Dusseau, from fostering cutting-edge research to new start-ups. “The greatest impact may, in the long run, be through our students, who learn here for a few years and then join the workforce. More than half of our students stay in the state.” 

The “prequel” is K-12 education, Erickson adds. He advocates integrating computer science curriculum into every school in the state, ensuring internet access in rural and inner-urban communities, and diversifying the talent pipeline. 

“In the information age there is a great opportunity for equality,” he says. “And that’s very exciting to me.” 

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