MSOE is Getting a New Supercomputer, Changing the School as We Know It

Can a new computer science program – and the area’s fastest supercomputer – raise the profile of MSOE?

Does the Milwaukee School of Engineering fly under the radar, compared with heavy hitters like Marquette University and UW-Milwaukee? “Somewhat, yes,” John Walz, president of the undergraduate-focused college, says with a laugh. “I do think we have a little opportunity to improve our brand recognition.” The school’s athletic teams compete at the Division 3 level and attract little media attention. Its 2,900-some students, most of them young men, don’t fill sidewalks the way its Milwaukee peers do. And because MSOE lacks doctorate programs, it’s typically considered a “regional” university, while the likes of UWM, UW-Madison and Marquette are considered “national.”

But within its division, MSOE has quietly established itself. U.S. News and World Report ranked it as the 10th-best regional engineering school in the country, behind the U.S. Air Force Academy and well-known schools in New York and California. MSOE’s electrical and mechanical engineering undergrad programs rank sixth and seventh, respectively. “We want to be more recognized for what we have,” says Walz.

Several factors hold MSOE back: It has only about 200 students in its master’s programs, and in an unusual handicap for a technology school, it has long lacked a proper computer science program. The void has hindered the school from hooking interested high school students. “Teachers say they have students who want to go for computer science,” Walz says, “and you don’t have it.”

But that’s about to change dramatically. A new computer science department will launch this fall, thanks to the largest alumnus donation the school has ever received. As part of the project, the school is building a new, centrally located building to house computing classes, labs and what will probably be the fastest supercomputer in town.

The story of how this came about begins in 1994, when Dwight Diercks – four years after he graduated from MSOE – became employee No. 22 at a small California startup called Nvidia Corp. In the years that followed, Nvidia, which now employs about 10,000 people, became one of the world’s leading makers of computer graphics hardware – chips now being used in large numbers for artificial intelligence and a new kind of supercomputer. Lucky for Nvidia, much of the math used to calculate pixel colors is the same as that for A.I.

Rendering of Diercks Hall’s atrium and first-floor plaza.

A regent at MSOE, Diercks began talking with Walz about how to make the most of a large donation in 2016, and they settled on an arrangement in which Diercks (and his wife, Dian) would fund the building to house classrooms, labs and the supercomputer, which MSOE will pay for. According to building plans, the computer lurks tall and dark behind protective glass on the second floor.

The computer – it doesn’t have an official name yet, but here’s a vote for Dwight 9000 – will be the fastest in Southeastern Wisconsin, unless someone has built a faster one in secret, according to Derek Riley, director of the electrical engineering and computer science department.

In the final calculation, Diercks, a senior vice president at Nvidia, gave $34 million in the company’s stock to MSOE, which sold it and broke ground on the Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall, 1025 N. Milwaukee St., in April. “It was probably a little bit more than I was expecting to spend,” he says. Asked to explain why the 40-something gave so early in his life, he repeated the advice of another university donor: “You have to give with warm hands.” At first, he thought this meant generously. Later, he realized that it meant, “You have to give while you’re still alive.”

“Angel Investor” appears in the July 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.