New Big Data class gets high marks from students

The materials revolution across the world means today’s researchers need robust IT tools such as cloud computing to keep up.

By Gretchen Konrady

When it comes to understanding data-intensive computing, nothing beats a hands-on learning experience with real tools. 

That sentiment was echoed by 60 graduate and undergraduate students in their reviews of a new UW College of Engineering class, Big Data of Materials Science, taught during spring 2021. The class was in part so successful thanks to a collaboration between UW Information Technology (UW-IT) and the UW eScience Institute, and use of commercial cloud computing resources offered through UW-IT.

The class was part of a new course series offered through the UW Department of Materials Science & Engineering (MSE), taught by Luna Huang, MSE assistant teaching professor, and Ting Cao, MSE assistant professor. They used commercial cloud computing resources offered through UW-IT and expert support from Rob Fatland, UW-IT cloud and data solutions director, and Naomi Alterman, eScience Institute technical education specialist, who helped configure the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform and much more.

“Rob and Naomi helped design the course and helped us set up and manage the infrastructure to teach students about various cloud tools at scale,” Huang said.

The pair are typically involved in helping researchers navigate how to use cloud computing for their research needs, said Sarah Stone, who is executive director of the eScience Institute. “So it’s wonderful to see their assistance in teaching cloud computing to students.” 

Because starter funds for UW faculty to try out Azure are provided through a joint program between Microsoft and the eScience Institute, Huang reached out to Fatland to see if she could leverage the cloud tools. And after some configuration to the Azure platform, with computers on the cloud and software development tools on student laptops, Huang and Cao were all set. 

Fatland and Alterman even taught part of the curriculum, based on lectures and hands-on sessions they had developed themselves. 

“Their participation definitely brought our class to a higher level!” Huang said.

Learn more: Interested students can check the UW Time Schedule for information on College of Engineering classes MSE 479 and MSE 544. The cross listing is CHEM 543, which is one of the electives of the Data Science Minor and is open to all students who fulfill the prerequisites.