Wilson and Rice make math and computer science cool

Nicole Wilson and Dr. Jackie Rice admit there are no plans to blow things up when the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science debuts its LUMACS camps this summer. They insist however that kids will have a ton of fun.

"The chemistry department is one of the groups that I kind of look at as a combination of inspiration and competition," Wilson says. "Their 1812 presentation is great, they play the crowd well and you can tell they've done it a number of times and have continued to add to it over the years.

"We're not going to blow things up, but we can do a lot of fun things."

Their brainchild, LUMACS, is an acronym for Life, U, Mathematics and Computer Science and the idea is to get kids to come to campus and experience all that math and computer science at the U of L has to offer. The need for such a camp is born out of a desire to better connect with the southern Alberta community.

"We've been hearing about people out in the schools doing some of the things we have an expertise in, like robotics competitions, and not coming to us. That was one motivation for putting together a more official outreach program," Rice says.

Her group already promotes itself through participation in the summer camps offered by Sport and Recreation Services. Destination Exploration has been running for five years now and introduces kids to things such as robotics and computer science but its scope is limited to a half-day session – an appetizer. Rice and Wilson are looking at offering a full meal deal.

"The existing summer camps run by the University generally top out at age 11 and we're aiming at kids aged 12 to 17," Rice says. "We're going to get them in here and really give them a flavour of all the different kinds of things we can offer.

"With the extra time, it'll give them a chance to build something, build a sense of community with each other, build a project they can take away and show off and more than anything, have fun."

They don't hide the fact that this is also a recruiting tool. Potential students are increasingly turning away from math and computer science programs and more alarming is the fact that girls' numbers are in an even steeper rate of decline.

"What's really scary for me is that we had more girls at one point than we do now," says Wilson. "Numbers of undergraduates coming into computer science across North America are falling but the girls are falling proportionately faster than the boys."

That would seem counterintuitive given the fact that computers are so integral to today's society.

"It's growing to be so much a part of our world and yet people aren't interested in knowing why these things work the way they do," Rice says.

Their challenge is to engage teenagers with programming that opens their eyes to the power of math and computer science and the possibilities that exist in these fields.


• LUMACS is being offered in two sessions. One is weeklong, July 20-24; the second is a two-day camp, Aug. 14-15

• One of the unique programs Rice and Wilson use is the Scratch program from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "Scratch is designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills. As they create and share Scratch projects, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively."

• Lego Mindstorm robots are one of the most popular projects kids get to work on. They consist of regular Lego combined with an intelligent computer-controlled Lego brick, which acts as the brain of the robot

• For more information on LUMACS, visit the website: