Student spotlight: Olivia Freedman expresses ‘creativity through coding’

Information Science student Olivia Freedman (photo courtesy of Freedman)

Olivia Freedman x’26 knew she wanted to attend UW–Madison long before applying to college. With two Badger alums as parents, Freedman visited the campus at age 10 and “fell in love,” she said. “I wanted to follow in their footsteps.”

Freedman also had an early interest in using technology to help meet people’s needs; as a middle schooler, she started a business using 3D printing to create and sell homemade fidget cubes. But as a freshman at UW–Madison majoring in Communication Arts, Freedman was still exploring other programs that aligned with her interest in using technology for good.

After taking LIS 351 (Introduction to Digital Information) with Jeff Nyhoff, she was sold on Information Science (iSci) as a second major. “That was the turning point for me to major in Information Science,” Freedman said of LIS 351.

Olivia Freedman celebrates being accepted to UW-Madison (photo courtesy of Freedman)

Encountering iSci

What was it about LIS 351 that made Freedman want to major in iSci? “It taught me the process of understanding the user’s needs and applying a technology solution to meet those needs,” Freedman said. Nyhoff’s course enables students to use technology for problem-solving through information infrastructures like websites, databases and metadata. “We developed a website using HTML and CSS, and I enjoyed that process a lot,” Freedman said.

Fascinated by coding, Freedman then enrolled in another Information Science course, LIS 440 (Navigating the Data Revolution), also taught by Nyhoff, in spring 2024. The course provides an introduction to the world of data science, including hands-on projects involving analysis of real-world data and development of visualizations. The course was Freedman’s first foray into the programming language Python. “Python gave me another way to express creativity through coding,” she said. “I didn’t know I would enjoy coding so much.”

But iSci students like Freedman aren’t coding just to code: they are deploying computational tools to enhance users’ experiences with technology.

Improving the user experience

On top of her Communication Arts and iSci majors, Freedman is also pursuing the interdisciplinary Digital Studies Certificate. The popular program is designed for students to hone their skills in producing digital media content and understanding digital culture broadly.

The flexible iSci major offers a strong foundation of technical skills like coding and data analysis, in addition to critical thinking skills about the relationships between technology and society. The Digital Studies Certificate, meanwhile, straddles communication and technology, allowing students to take classes like JOURN 175 (Media Fluency for the Digital Age) and ART 107 (Introduction to Digital Forms). “[ART 107] taught me a lot about graphic design,” Freedman said. “We used code to create animations and other kinds of digital media. It made me want to be a user experience (UX) designer after graduation.”

It makes sense that UX design would appeal to Freedman: the field draws on and combines critical concepts from communication and information science. “UX design is all about how humans interact with technology,” Freedman said. She also noted that the iSchool also offers a UX Design Capstone Certificate, which she plans to pursue after graduation, designed to launch new graduates into in-demand UX careers.

A legacy of entrepreneurship

What drives students like Freedman to approach technology through a problem-solving lens? Often, it is mentors and parents who set an inspiring example. In Freedman’s case, her father—Badger alum Ross Freedman ‘97—has played a pivotal role. Olivia started a business, Infinite Fidget, with her sister as a teenager in the Chicago suburbs, encouraged by their father.

With a 3D printer at home, Freedman experimented with designing various fidget cubes. The sisters began selling them to friends and ultimately to new customers around the world online through social media and an Etsy online store. A business was born.

A screenshot from Freedman’s Infinite Fidget Instagram account

“We were selling them especially to kids with disabilities like autism and ADHD,” Freedman said. Research shows fidget cubes can be effective “sensory tools” for children with autism, increasing attention and academic performance. Relatedly, the Freedmans donated part of the revenue from Infinite Fidget to Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

When Olivia was asked if she had interest in pursuing entrepreneurship as a career, she considered it a possibility “in the future.” For now, she is making the most of her UW–Madison experience, diving deeper into the intersecting worlds of technology, communication, and UX Design.

For more information on the Information Science undergraduate major, visit its website.

For more information on the UX Design Capstone Certificate, visit the program’s website.