Rose Award for Teaching Excellence Reflects Fagen-Ulmschneider's Unique Success with DISCOVERY

5/9/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

When Illinois CS professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider paired with Statistics professor Karle Flanagan five years ago on a course called Data Science Discovery, he imagined it influencing many undergraduate students. The Rose Award proves that DISCOVERY surpassed the professors’ own expectations.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Five years ago, and with only 18 students, Illinois Computer Science professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider began shepherding a remarkable transformation for the new course offering, Data Science Discovery, alongside professor Karle Flanagan with the Department of Statistics.

Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider, Teaching Associate Professor
Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider

Fast forward to 2023, and nearly 2,000 students from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have taken the course. Additionally, Fagen-Ulmschneider and Flannigan built DISCOVERY into a free, open-access web presence displayed in over 2 million search results and receiving as many as 17,000 impressions on a single day.

Fittingly, Fagen-Ulmschneider earned The Grainger College of Engineering’s 2023 Rose Award for Teaching Excellence on April 24. In large part, the award recognized the impact DISCOVERY has made on so many undergraduate students, as well as its collaborative uniqueness.

“Those first 18 students – who were as much a student in the course as they were collaborators that brought data science education to Illinois – reported this experience as their favorite at Illinois. Through word of mouth, social media, Reddit and more, this little ‘side project’ went viral and the very next semester saw the course explode to 185 students,” Fagen-Ulmschneider said.

“I’m honored to receive the Rose Award for Teaching Excellence, as it's the highest honor I’ve received for the work and innovation behind DISCOVERY. I believe the Rose Award will serve as the inflection point between the moment DISCOVERY began as a course at Illinois and when it positioned Illinois as a leader in data science for years to come.”

Since he began teaching with Illinois CS in 2013, Fagen-Ulmschneider has maintained a motivation to reach as many students as possible. His goal is also to make his CS teachings as accessible and impactful as possible.

That’s why he decided to leave a successful job in the computing industry to pursue his Ph.D. here at Illinois CS.

That’s also why focuses his courses on similar subject matter as DISCOVERY, through offerings in Data Structures, Data Visualization, and Data Science.

What he couldn’t predict since joining Illinois CS is how well that emphasis paired with Flanagan.

Karle Flanagan
Karle Flanagan

“Karle has a world-class reputation for being able to explain extremely complex mathematical and statistical concepts to students who have a deep fear of the subject,” Fagen-Ulmschneider said. “When deans in the College of Liberal Arts and Science tapped her to lead the data science effort, she wanted to ensure that students approached data science from a computational and statistical perspective and agreed to join only if she could partner with someone who could help with the computation.

“So, when Karle approached me with the idea of building this new course, I was lucky enough to have the support of The Grainger College of Engineering and Illinois CS to jump right in.”

Still, the tandem was in uncharted territory.

Fagen-Ulmschneider came from CS, a department and field rich in academic standing. Data science rankings, however, did not yet exist.

Both professors saw this as an opportunity, though.

They wanted to provide the same level of excellence witnessed at the graduate level in data science for undergraduate students eager to find their own place in the field. So, both poured their inspiration first into the course offered at Illinois, and then into the accessible web presence built for as many students as possible.

“In almost two decades at Illinois, this is the first time I’ve put together a course that was truly a collaborative effort between colleges,” Fagen-Ulmschneider said. “Students called it a true ‘transformative learning experience,’ and something that provides a ‘significant and visible social impact.’

“Through the thousands of students impacted by DISCOVERY and the hundreds of thousands of times that DISCOVERY has appeared in search results and other venues, I’m proud to say that the course has accomplished exactly what we hoped for and more.”

Students have not only enrolled in the course but have rated it highly. Both professors have earned mention on the Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students list for this course, and students rated it in the 98th percentile regarding course quality.

DISCOVERY became a unique success that built off the purpose Fagen-Ulmschneider finds in being a member of the teaching faculty here at Illinois CS.

And the Rose Award for Teaching Excellence reflected the course's impact, as it recognizes teachers within Grainger Engineering who excel at motivating freshman and sophomore students to learn and appreciate engineering.

“We have the most remarkable students here at Illinois CS and throughout the university,” Fagen-Ulmschneider. “I’m amazed at their capabilities and excitement about what we teach.”

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This story was published May 9, 2023.