Message from Tom Erickson, CDIS Founding Director

When I was a kid, I spent countless hours taking things apart, learning how they worked and repurposing parts into whole new contraptions. With each invention, I imagined creating a new machine that would change the world. I even imagined a hyper-speed autonomous rail/auto system with remote controls that would speed me to destinations I had only read about. My fascination for how things worked led me to UW, where I studied engineering, and eventually into high-tech entrepreneurship where I spent my days working with creative teams satisfying some of those childhood dreams.

Understanding how things work and then imagining how they can work better was initially a hobby, then a career and now my passion at UW–Madison, where I am the founding director of the School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences (CDIS).

Technology now permeates almost every aspect of our daily lives. From high-speed smartphones to advanced medical technologies, our lifestyles and our global economy are underpinned by computing and data. What we could only imagine a few years ago is becoming a reality, and in the autumn of 2019, CDIS was created to connect “what’s happening now” with ”what’s happening next”.

As the founding director of CDIS, I am privileged to work with incredible technologists, inspired entrepreneurs and curious students who are passionate about CDIS and understand that when we work together, we magnify the power of innovation across the university and beyond. We’ve made huge strides in our mission to connect data, ideas and people – cultivating collaboration to make every idea better.

To realize the vision of CDIS, we focused our efforts in five areas:

We know that innovation is driving the future economy and that the largest centers of economic growth over the last half-century are regions where high-tech innovation is flourishing. Universities are at the center of this economic prosperity, from Silicon Valley and Boston to Austin, Texas, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. CDIS believes that establishing a vibrant tech hub at UW–Madison can do for our region what MIT, Stanford and others have done for their regions.

CDIS is well poised to lead this effort. Our three departments – Computer Sciences, the Information School, and Statistics – are ranked in the top 13 in their respective disciplines, a claim none of our peers can make. In many areas, such as databases and architecture, we are recognized globally as a top leader. In 2020, we hired 15 new faculty members to build on these strengths and expect to add several more in 2021. These talented researchers and educators have expertise in diverse areas such as machine learning, human-computer interaction, cybersecurity and information retrieval.

Curriculum and New Degree Offerings
One pillar of our mission is to graduate more students versed in computing and big data concepts. We’ve rapidly accelerated our programs over the past year, adding new offerings aimed at closing the digital skills gap in our society. Today we have over 1,300 double, triple, and even quadruple undergraduate majors across our Statistics, Data Science and Computer Sciences programs. Our students are pursuing diverse pathways and preparing themselves for careers in the information age. In its first year, the bachelor’s in Data Science has emerged as the fastest-growing major on campus with 425 students declaring the major in just its first eight months. Complementing this, we will launch a Data Science Certificate, or minor, this coming fall.

Additionally, we initiated a master’s degree program in Information Science, a discipline that offers graduate students the opportunity to hone their skills in either applied data analytics, information/data management or user experience (UX) design. We are also planning a bachelor’s degree program in Information Science. In regards to UX design, the iSchool has also implemented an online UX certificate through InStride, an organization that provides employers with continued learning programs for their workforce. Finally, the Computer Sciences department has established the Professional Capstone Certificate Program, a graduate program for working professionals in the process of transitioning to a career as a software developer.

Industry Relations and Entrepreneurship
The intersection of research and students is a ripe environment for entrepreneurship. Recently, the esteemed Brookings Institution named Madison the #1 growth center prospect in the country, citing innovation sector job percentages and STEM graduate levels in the region. Madison and the region already boast significant successes, including Epic Systems, Exact Sciences, Propeller Health, Tomotherapy, and, more recently, Fetch Rewards and Redox.

CDIS is expanding entrepreneurship offerings across campus and supporting the broader ecosystem. Our most prominent effort is the launch of the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) Wisconsin, developed in partnership with the Wisconsin School of Business and American Family Insurance. CDL is renowned internationally for its unique program for early-stage startups. We recruited ventures from the region and across the world, built a world-class set of mentors and included students from campus for this eight-month program. Our first cohort was in Risk Tech, and we will add a stream in Health and Wellness in the autumn. The latter is in partnership with the world-leading Center for Healthy Minds at UW-Madison. CDIS also worked with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to establish the first venture studio on a university campus. Varsity Venture Studio took more than 260 ideas from faculty and students and distilled them into four finalist candidate companies.

Last fall, we introduced the Computer Sciences Capstone project for undergraduates. Paired with industry partners who defined specific data and computing challenges, the students created innovative solutions spending months on research, prototyping and development. This practical experience prepares our students for the workforce, while offering our industry partners innovative ways to approach their issues.

Diversity and Outreach
CDIS is committed to tackling the global problem of diversity in high tech. Only about 20% of students graduating with computer sciences degrees are women, and the issue is even more acute with students from underrepresented communities. Additionally in Wisconsin we have an urban/rural divide. We’re working to ensure retention of students with programs such as Wisconsin Emerging Scholars, which is specifically designed to engage underrepresented and first-generation students in small group problem-solving. We have also expanded our undergraduate research opportunities for underrepresented students through the Wisconsin Science and Computing Emerging Stars (WISCERS) program.

Infrastructure to Support our Endeavors
CDIS has grown from 675 program students ten years ago to more than 3675 today, roughly the same size as the Wisconsin School of Business and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This exponential growth has our buildings bursting at the seams, with classroom sizes and availability acting as a limiting factor to student access to our courses. New methods of instruction are critical to our future educational success, where lecture halls with fixed seats need to be replaced with collaborative learning environments.

Accommodating these changes is a priority for CDIS, necessitating a new building that will house all three of CDIS’s departments plus the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute, a cross-campus initiative in data science research. We are currently in the design phase for this building, which we plan to be a welcoming and inclusive tech hub for the state and region. Faculty, students, industry partners and experts across a wide spectrum of fields are engaged as we bolster the tech corridor on the campus, from the new chemistry building through CDIS and the Discovery Building to Engineering. We expect this building to act as a catalyst for innovation, fueling substantial economic growth in the future.

Our need is urgent, requiring us to set very ambitious fundraising and planning schedules for this 100% donor-funded project. We will begin our campaign to raise funds this summer.

It’s been a busy time for the CDIS team. Our vision for establishing a world-leading center for research and education of human-centered computing, data and information sciences is well on its way, yet we have so much more to do. In affirmation of our progress recently, the Chancellor provided an update to the Board of Regents about CDIS. In her presentation, she said, “It is going wonderfully.”

We are grateful to campus faculty and administration, industry leaders across the region and of course to our amazing students for their support.