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Edison Lecture Series Brings Big Data to Middle-School and High-School Students

Just like Edison turned on the light bulb, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at UT Austin is switching kids on to the field of engineering. Part of a STEM program geared towards middle school and high school students, the Edison Lecture Series celebrates fun over fundamentals and enables kids to have fun with engineering.

The event, sponsored by Phillips 66, attracted over thirty-four schools and over 1,800 students from the Central Texas area. During an interactive preshow, local area high school students and UT undergraduates showcased their award-winning robotic designs. Over the last nine years, the Edison Series has introduced over 26,000 students in Central Texas to the applications and impact of electrical engineering on the world. The Edison lecture has been spearheaded by ECE Prof. Christine Julien, who has been organizing and lecturing in this event for about a decade. This year, the highlight of the event was a lecture by ECE Prof. Christine Julien and WNCG Director, Prof. Sanjay Shakkottai and on this year’s theme of Big Data.

“Today, the average person processes more data in one day than a person in the 1500s processed in their entire lifetime,” Prof. Julien stated. “One day of a baby’s life generates more online data than the amount of content in the entire Library of Congress. Everyone creates data.”

Data does not just come from people either, Profs. Shakkottai and Julien told the students. Data comes from computers, laptops, smart phones, location data, Apply Pay, vehicles with GPS, parking meters, wireless road sensors, Fit Bit, Google Glass, even smart forks and spoons.

“These items record the way humans perceive the world and the data goes to the cloud. This is what Big Data is about,” Prof. Shakkottai stated.

Using popular movies and cartoons, Profs. Shakkottai and Julien guided the students through important challenges facing the field of Big Data today.

“The Netflix show, House of Cards, is the most streamed content in the US and 40 other countries,” Prof. Julien stated. “Netflix invested $100 million in the show before any test pilots were created or viewed. They knew it would be a hit because of what the data showed.”

According to Prof. Julien, Netflix knows every movie a viewer watches and what TV or device they watch it on. It knows what people search for, personal star ratings, when a viewer pauses, rewinds, or stops a movie and more.

With 50 million subscribers and 10,000 titles available for streaming, Netflix is inundated with data. The data is sparse, noisy and slow, Prof. Julien mentioned. Algorithms that could convert this data with absolute accuracy into the perfect recommendation for each viewer cannot finish within a person’s lifetime.

“The goal of Big Data,” Prof. Julien stated, “Is to make these algorithms as fast and as correct as possible.”

Other popular examples of Big Data include Pandora radio, its use in baseball, predictive law enforcement and policing. By explaining mathematical models through storytelling and colorful visuals, the UT team challenged the thought leaders of the future to explore and investigate these issues.

The future of Big Data consists of three major challenges, Prof. Shakkottai informed the students. First, there are technical challenges, such as how to build systems that can process this information. Another important challenge involves how to analyze, collect and visualize this data. Lastly, many social challenges surround the collection of this data. 

“These will be your challenges and your problems to solve,” Prof. Shakkottai told the students as he encouraged them to search for future solutions to these issues.

Profs. Julien and Shakkottai encouraged the students to think critically about the social implications and challenges surrounding big data, like issues of privacy, the role of creativity and ensuring integrity.

As the crowd cheered, Prof. Julien ended the lecture by saying “I hope we’ve inspired you to think about Big Data and how it’s used. I hope we’ve also cautioned you to think about Big Data and how it’s used.”

To find out how you can get involved with next year’s Edison Lecture Series, or to become a corporate sponsor, contact Nancy Hatchett at Find out more at