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.
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.”