Higher ed adapts to growing demand for computer science

Software Innovations

A rendering of an interactive classroom planned for the new Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall at MSOE.

Advances in technology are changing the way business is done in just about every industry, and institutions of higher education in Wisconsin are undergoing major changes to evolve their computer science programs into new frontiers.

Nationally, the number of undergraduates majoring in computer science doubled from 2013 to 2017, according to The New York Times. In Wisconsin, that number is growing significantly, too, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has seen its computer science program explode in popularity over the past decade.

A rendering of an interactive classroom planned for the new Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall at MSOE.
Photo courtesy of MSOE

“There’s been a huge increase in demand,” said Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau, associate chair of the Department of Computer Sciences at UW-Madison. “We’ve become the biggest major (within the entire university). I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. It’s pretty amazing how much it’s grown.”

In 2009, there were fewer than 200 undergraduates majoring in computer science at UW-Madison. In 2018, that number soared past 1,500 and is showing no signs of slowing down.

Other schools in Wisconsin are seeing increases, too. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s undergraduate computer science major headcount has grown more than 50 percent over the past five years. The Milwaukee School of Engineering received a $34 million donation to open a new computational science facility, which will include the new bachelor of science in computer science degree that was introduced in fall 2018, where interest “exceeded what we originally thought,” said Eric Baumgartner, vice president of academics at MSOE.

With this growth in interest and enrollment in computer science programs, many institutions are struggling to keep up with the demand. The number of tenure-track faculty in the subject rose only about 17 percent nationally during the time period in which majors doubled, according to The New York Times.

Ethan Munson, associate dean for academic affairs at UWM’s College of Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of computer science, said this has been a significant trend among departments for some time. And while UWM didn’t feel that pinch as early as some other schools, it is now.

“We do have staffing problems,” he said. “But because of the budget difficulties that the UW System has had – and UWM among the system schools has had as much if not more (difficulties) than everybody else – we’ve had extremely little hiring in computer science. We haven’t been even trying to hire new faculty because we don’t have the budget space to do so, and it is very challenging. We have the capacity to serve the students that we have, but if we saw continued enrollment and growth, it would be very challenging to serve more students.”

Part of the problem, too, he said, is the nature of how qualified professors become qualified for these roles in any field spiking in popularity, given the amount of time it takes to get a doctorate, which can be up to eight years in computer science.

The steep trajectory of the program’s growth at UW-Madison has been met with a different and more aggressive response, Arpaci-Dusseau said.

“We’ve probably tripled the size of our teaching faculty in the last five to six years,” he said.

The computer science program at the state’s largest university is ranked 13th nationally by U.S. News & World Report, and now that it’s the largest major on campus, it garners an added bit of attention.

To that end, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank in January 2018 convened a 12-person task force that included faculty, business leaders, department alumni and others to study the future of computing on campus in an in-depth way from a variety of angles. Nine months later, the task force produced a report titled “Wisconsin in the Information Age.”

Arpaci-Dusseau, a member of the task force, said a big part of the report was the recognition that computing and data are transforming just about every field.

“Everybody has data to analyze and everybody has some computational things that they need to do,” he said. “There’s a sense that, more and more, these computational and data science skills really need to be pervasive. Hopefully, that extends out then into the state and the workforce and existing businesses, as well as to the creation of new businesses.”

While Wisconsin has some technology companies with major presences – Verona-based health care technology giant Epic Systems Corp. was founded by Judy Faulkner, a UW-Madison computer sciences alum – it’s not exactly Silicon Valley or Seattle when it comes to being internationally recognized as a tech hub. But given how prevalent computing and data are becoming in so many different industries, even companies that might not first and foremost be identified as a “technology company” have a need for employees with computer science skills.

“In Milwaukee, even though we have companies where computing is important to them, none of them are seen as principally computing companies,” said Munson, naming Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., GE Healthcare, and Rockwell Automation Inc. among those hiring computer science majors.

Baumgartner also pointed to the Milwaukee Tech Hub, which includes Northwestern Mutual, Rockwell, Johnson Controls International plc, Advocate Aurora Health, Kohl’s Corp., Foxconn Technology Group, gener8tor, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Milwaukee Bucks, MillerCoors LLC and many more, and how it is working to grow an ecosystem around tech in Milwaukee, even among non-traditional tech companies. In a way, he said, all companies are becoming technology companies.

Arpaci-Dusseau also noted that the “brain drain” trend of students in tech leaving the state after graduation is changing, and more computer science graduates are staying after finding opportunities closer to places like Madison, which is seeing a “growth of satellite campuses of big companies,” he said. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Zendesk (which now employs 350 people in an office near the state Capitol) have established a presence in Madison, which doesn’t have the high costs of living and retention challenges seen in coastal cities.

“There’s more and more opportunity here than there ever was before to stay,”
Arpaci-Dusseau said. ϖ

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Dan Shafer
Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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