Data Driven: Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider Interview with Illinois Alumni Magazine

1/20/2023 Mary Timmins, Illinois Alumni

Computer science faculty member Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider (PH.D ’13 ENG) on making Christmas cards, outing grades online and nerding out, as told to Mary Timmins.

Written by Mary Timmins, Illinois Alumni

Five years ago, no one really knew what data science was. Now, the buzz is it’s where all the new jobs are. I teach Data Science Discovery, a freshman-level course, with Karle Flanagan, ’12 LAS, MS ’13 LAS, who’s in the statistics department. A year-and-a-half ago, we had 150 students. This fall we had 600.

CS professor Wade Fagen Ulmschneider poses in front of a digital themed backdrop.
(Image by Fred Zwicky)
"Ten years from now, things we can't even imagine will be commonplace because of data science," says Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider, teaching associate professor of Computer Science.

The students use their own laptops. You can do millions of records in under a second on a regular laptop. We spend a lot of time getting everyone’s computer set up; we want them to leave our course being able to do data science.

One of my favorite projects is the image mosaic—a picture that from far away looks like one image, but is actually many, many individual pictures aligned. We have students write the algorithms that will allow them to make their own image mosaics from the photos on their phones. Other students create Christmas cards for the assignment.

Students love my GPA visualizations. The University of Illinois publishes a big Excel file of how many A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s every professor gives in every course. We visualize that data, sorting through it row by row, course by course, semester by semester, and then present it in a way that’s easy to consume. When the first visualization came out five or six years ago, many people were shocked that this information was public.

One extremely important part of teaching data science is the ethics. Are we doing the right things with data? Are we respecting users? Are we respecting privacy? If we’re not also thinking about ethical questions when we’re thinking about new algorithms, we might end up in a dystopic future. And we do not want to be there.

Ten years from now, things we can’t even imagine will be commonplace because of data science. With medicine, we’re going to develop better treatments and determine the causes of more diseases. With business, we’re going to be able to provide better solutions for problems in people’s lives. Every aspect of our daily life will change because of data and artificial intelligence.

On my website, I’ve got this icon: “Keep nerding out.” That’s what I do most of the day. My wife nerds out with books. She gets a good book and just disappears for hours. I disappear into data.

Read the original story from the Illinois Alumni magazine.

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This story was published January 20, 2023.