Along with universities like New York University and Princeton, the University of Wisconsin will launch classes on cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology to train students in the nascent but potentially transformative industry.
This upcoming fall, Brad Chandler, the director of the Nicholas Center for Corporate Finance and Investment Banking in the business school, will teach the one-credit course on cryptocurrencies in collaboration with board members of Badger Blockchain, Sid Ramesh, UW junior and Badger Blockchain advisor, said. Badger Blockchain is a cryptocurrency-focused student organization
Chandler currently gives seminars to MBA students using slides, some of which Badger Blockchain members have drafted. But Ramesh said he and other students of the organization are pushing for the formation of more classes to help students climb the steep learning curve of this new technology, especially because the industry is currently ripe with careers for young, educated people.
“[Badger Blockchain’s] mission is to be able to provide the educational resources so a person can go out and do good things for the blockchain ecosystem,” Ramesh said. “There’s a lot of talent in this space right now both from a technical and nontechnical side, but the industry, in order for it to scale and provide all these applications, they need more talent to work on it.”
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The first kickoff meeting of Badger Blockchain in spring 2017 was a “terrible” experience when only two people showed up, Ramesh said. But after a relaunch of the organization in the summer, their kickoff meeting in the fall attracted 55 students.
Brennan Fife, a board member of Badger Blockchain who handles outreach to blockchain companies, said it is easy to get students interested in blockchain because of the popularity of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
“The majority of the people who come here start out just with an interest in Bitcoin,” Fife said. “But as you find out, and as time goes along, you generally find out this is a much bigger field in what it has the potential to do. It’s obviously still young, but what it can offer is promising.”
The underlying infrastructure of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is blockchain, a digital ledger that tracks the history of peer-to-peer interactions. Each block in the chain stores a list of transactions that peers exchange and every peer can view every interaction, Ramesh said.
Because everyone has access to the same information, blockchain dissolves any need for a third party intermediary, Ramesh added. For instance, people put money into a bank and trust them to transact their money fairly.
But since the ledgers of blockchain are transparent, decentralized and peer-to-peer, and can only be added to and not altered, they make cryptocurrencies trustable and banks obsolete, Ramesh said.
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Correll Lashbrook, having run several blockchain companies, said the high-risk trading of cryptocurrencies, where a coin can lose or double over half its value overnight, is fun, but is only the surface layer of what the underlying technology can offer.
“I think the much more fun part of it is when we think, ‘now that we have thousands of homes that have the ability to process data in a way that didn’t exist, what else can we do with that?’” Lashbrook said.
Other industries are refashioning existing systems with blockchain technology.
When Ramesh interned at IBM in 2016 as one of the first interns working on blockchain, he said he helped to integrate the technology into their supply chain. Fife said he did similar work as an intern in Walmart’s supply chain.
Lashbrook said he is partly running his most recent blockchain company, which leases computational power to companies and research institutions out of 100state, a co-working space in Madison.
100crpyto, an incubator space for blockchain companies within 100state, opened in December 2017 and currently houses several Madison-based blockchain companies, according to the incubator’s website.
Lashbrook said in his time in the corporate world of Madison, he has found the city to be more accessible than other tech cities like San Francisco and a good place to launch a startup since the city is more forgiving when things don’t go well — a reality common to startups and cryptocurrencies alike.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of people make some really interesting attempts to create real value in [the blockchain] space,” Lashbrook said. “100state is doing a good job creating process and structure to make it even more accessible.”
Ramesh consults members of 100crypto as he takes time off from being a student at UW, leading casework workshops with entrepreneurs to explore whether their company can utilize blockchain or if it’s unnecessary.
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Ramesh said the hardest part of educating people on this technology is navigating through the noise.
“There are many problems that blockchain cannot solve and many other places where other technologies would be more appropriate,” Ramesh said. “But in the right circumstances, it can radically improve transparency, efficiency and security of how businesses transact today.”
Fife said blockchain is like any new technology in that it’s easy for it to become overhyped. Companies can obscure the field with applications not properly using the technology or not utilizing it to its full potential.
Fife likened the sudden, dramatic rise in interest in blockchain to when the first iPhone was released and developers were rapidly making apps regardless of whether they were good or had bugs.
“People were just putting stuff out regardless,” Fife said. “So that’s kind of the stage that I see is happening here. I think a lot of the stuff will over the next couple of years start to smoothen out and become much more refined and polished.”