Milwaukee Biz Blog: Computer sciences at UW-Madison expanding reach

Tom Still
Tom Still

On a campus famed for its breakthroughs in biotechnology, engineering and agriculture, a much smaller department is exerting an outsized effect on the Wisconsin economy – and beyond.

The UW-Madison Department of Computer Sciences, which has been in the forefront of computational innovation since the dawn of the Internet, is poised to build upon its quiet national reputation while expanding its ties to companies close to home.

In a world that views California’s Silicon Valley as one of the few places where people build solutions for software, computer systems, mobile data and even artificial intelligence, the relatively small “Comp Sci” department on the Madison campus is helping to change that perception.

Recent events demonstrate the department’s rising profile and challenge the long-held perception that its researchers think first about working with mega-companies elsewhere and second about the needs of Wisconsin companies.

  • Milwaukee philanthropists Sheldon and Marianne Lubar, who made their mark in business and investing in Wisconsin, announced a $7-million gift to the department this fall to help attract and retain top faculty. The money will endow two chairs and two professorships, plus establish a discretionary fund.
  • Verona-based Epic Systems announced in December it will endow three faculty positions within computer sciences. Epic was founded by Judith Faulkner, one of the department’s renowned graduates. The size of the gift wasn’t disclosed, but it’s likely comparable to the Lubar gift because the faculty seats are endowed in perpetuity.
  • The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation recently won a $234-million judgment in a lawsuit against Apple Inc. that accused the company of infringing on the microprocessor work of Guri Sohi, a computer sciences professor. The judgment was significant on size alone, but it also underscored how long UW-Madison researchers have been in the vanguard of digital innovation. A prime example is emeritus professor Larry Landweber, one of the first people to be inducted in the Internet Hall of Fame for his 1970s work on TheoryNet and CSNet.

How does the department’s teaching and research mission translate to strengthening Wisconsin’s economy? While it’s true that many UW-Madison computer sciences graduates wind up working for Google, Microsoft, Oracle and other industry leaders, the department has increasingly focused on emerging companies – and jobs – much closer to home.

In fact, Google, Microsoft and Zendesk wouldn’t have Madison offices if not for the department’s ability to lend talent and expertise. Within the past year, two Wisconsin companies founded by Madison researchers were sold, bringing investment dollars and connections home.

Perhaps the biggest advantage over time may come from how the department works with Wisconsin-based companies such as Epic, the U.S. market leader in software-based electronic health records, and major companies in sectors that increasingly rely on computer science.

What matters is not just the next “smartphone” application but putting computer sciences to work through robotics, autonomous vehicles, drones, financial services, insurance and even behavioral fields that help solve human and environmental problems.

That’s why the department is broadening its mission to include students from other disciplines – statistics, economics, finance and the social sciences – who will benefit from learning more about computational theory and practice.

It has launched an “Introduction to Data Programming” class for students who are majoring in similar fields. Those students will write basic programs by the end of the class. The department also offers an undergraduate computer science certificate program – the equivalent to a “minor” degree – for students in physical, biological or social science.

“Who in the 21st century economy shouldn’t be able to do some programming… to make some data inquiries… or have some basic exposure to computational thinking?” asked Mark Hill, chairman of the computer sciences department and a researcher who specializes in computer architecture.

Of course, the UW-Madison isn’t the only Wisconsin institution teaching computer sciences. Other four-year public and private campuses, as well as the state’s technical colleges and some accredited private centers, are producing talent. The state’s flagship campus plays a lead role, however, in projecting a national reputation that puts Wisconsin on the computer sciences map.

Computer sciences are imbedded in every business sector, including legacy industries that must adapt to remain competitive. Having a nationally ranked research and teaching center close to home can help those sectors grow.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. Learn how to connect with the computer sciences department at the Feb. 23 meeting of the Tech Council’s Wisconsin Innovation Network.

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