Meet the Faculty - Dan Challou

Tell us about your journey to the University of Minnesota.

I did my undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and computer science, and then I went and got a master’s degree at the University of Illinois. I went on to work at Bell Laboratories and a couple of other places in industry. Along the way, I realized I wanted to get my Ph.D., so I came back to the University of Minnesota in the late 80s and finished my degree in the mid 90s. I did want to eventually teach, so after finishing my Ph.D., I worked at St. John’s University as a tenure-track faculty member.

Due to some family circumstances, I needed to find a better paying job and I landed at BAE Systems. We started the first virtual integration lab, which was a totally immerse lab for integrating military ground vehicles. We were the first in the army. Actually, Victoria Interrante’s lab is patterned off of our lab. The whole time I thought I would one day return to teaching. In short, my whole life has led me back to the University of Minnesota. I’m going on year 12 as a lecturer. Coming from industry and being a manager, it was a big step. Other faculty members have been really helpful in turning me into a solid professor.

I always like computing. My mother wanted me to be an engineer and didn’t understand computer science initially. I had an uncle who worked for IBM and ended up managing the San Jose plant where they created the first hard disc, all without a college degree. Along the way my mom came around to the idea of me working in this field. I have really watched the field grow in front of my eyes my whole life. There is always something new, exciting and challenging to work on, which is really fun.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? What are your teaching interests?

My Ph.D. was in artificial intelligence, but along the way I worked in user interfaces and immersion and visualization. I have worked in a lot of areas. At Bell Laboratories, I worked in networking. Right now I’m teaching internet programming and I enjoy that. It is the dominant programming model out in the world. There are so many jobs and variations in that area.

I love teaching. You get back as much as you give, and even a little bit more. I think the most enjoyable part of the job is getting feedback from students. I love getting a note from students saying what they learned in class has helped them in their job and that they are having fun in their work. Those are the best days.  

What courses are you teaching this spring? What can students expect to get out of that class?

CSCI 4131 - Internet Programming is my current course. It actually is kind of misnamed because internet programming now is programming the world wide web. People can expect to develop a full-stack application that works on the internet. Once you build one, you have the basic pattern to build more with new complexities. You will get to learn which areas you enjoy.

I also teach CSCI 2081 - Introduction to Software Development, which is in the data science minor curriculum. The primary focus of the course is to teach data science minors Java with an emphasis on input and output. In the final through of the course, we look at data science applications where they actually get data, clean it, do regression analysis, and validate and verify your data. We also do a probability density function that you can do predictions with, as well as some natural language stuff. Sentiment analysis is used so widely across all industries to examine trends on social media for marketing purposes.

Lately, I have been teaching CSCI 4511 - Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI). In that course, you get a survey of the latest artificial intelligence techniques. It starts with search, which is so important because it is the underpinnings of everything we do on the internet. Then we look at knowledge representation, different forms of language representation, and a little bit of machine learning, neural networks stuff, which really relates to the classic algorithms. It’s really a survey course and I think a lot of people think of AI as neural nets and machine learning, and that’s just one piece of it.

What advice would you give to computer science students?

Focus on the content and not your grade. If you focus on the actual information and learn it, you will figure out if you actually enjoy it, and if you do, the rewards will come. You might not get the grades right away, but they will eventually if you find the joy in learning about these topics. Don’t obsess about the grades. Focus on the learning and go out and have some fun. Like Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”  

What do you do outside of the classroom for fun?

I’m now at the age where I have grandkids. I live on a lake in Minnesota and that is really an all-season activity. I like to get out in the snow, but summer is a really great time with boating, fishing and swimming. I also like walking and biking for exercise.

Do you have a favorite spot in the city or on campus?

I really spend most of my time on the lake and the area where I live. The restaurant scene has really grown in Minneapolis and we try to get out and try new things. We also will go to the Guthrie and Ordway. I’m also a Twins fan and Gophers fan so I like going to games. I’ll catch the Twins down at spring training if I can.

Anything else you would like students to know about you?

If you are taking a class with us, come see us! I might be getting to crabby old guy age but I’m not a crabby old guy. Come see us with issues and we can talk strategy about assignments. That’s why we are here.