IBM looks to ignite kids' interest in STEM careers

Twenty-five enthusiastic Grade 5 and 6 students are glued to their computers at a room in the IBM building on Riverside Drive.

“They are doing scratch programming,” says Lynn Petros, an education co-ordinator for IBM’s analytics group.

“We’re importing our face on those little characters,” says Mindy, 10, from Manor Park Public School.

“This morning, they were doing tower building where they built their own towers and tried to make them fall over with a fan,” says Ms. Petros, the chair for IBM’s Ignite Camp.

The camp, held earlier this month, is one of three free camps the company offers each year across Canada, meant to get kids excited early about a possible career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

The Ignite Camp, which was back in Ottawa for the first time since 2010, is meant for all kids, with special attention to aboriginal children. Ms. Petros approached Manor Park, Robert E. Wilson Public School and Assumption Catholic School, all located near the Ottawa Inuit Children Centre in Overbrook.

The camp ended up with a “good cross-section of kids,” she says.

It took 50 IBM volunteers to run the camp, including co-op student Geoffrey Duimovich, 18,  who actually attended the camp six years ago.

“I got to do a bunch of activities all day that are technology-based and that’s what I really liked as a kid,” he said. “When you get to experience stuff like that, that’s where you get touched by it and hopefully you can pursue it later.”

In addition to the scratch programming and the tower building, the students built Lego robots, learned how to make ice cream and extract banana DNA. A field trip to Carleton University’s labs was a highlight, says Ms. Petros.

“One child said her favourite thing was seeing the robot guide dog and how it can be used. Somebody else said they enjoyed the tour because they got to see all the rooms. Somebody else said ‘I got to see my future university.’”

Ms. Petros says the response to the camp was “overwhelmingly positive” and couldn’t have been done without the team of volunteers.

“I think we’re all doing it for our own personal reasons,” she says. “Some people like to work with kids, others it’s to give back to the community. Whatever their reasons are, it’s good for everybody. It’s good for the community, it’s good for IBM, it’s good for us.

Andrew Lee agrees.

“Quite exciting. You can feel the energy in the room. Absolutely great,” says Mr. Lee, vice-president of client success and support for all IBM products. He is also the senior location executive for the Ottawa lab, a position he has held for just over two months.

“It gives me this wonderful opportunity to in essence represent IBM in the Ottawa community as well as represent the interest of our employees in terms of giving back to the community,” he says.

The camp is one of the ways to give back, he says, and was born as a result of some rather startling IBM research.

“They took about 900 higher education individuals as well as industry individuals and what they found was about only 49 per cent of them believed that the current curriculum today met the needs of the students,” he says. “They also found that about 41 per cent felt that it met the needs of the industry.”

He says IBM considers itself part of the solution and the camp is part of that.

“Inspiring some of our youth in a fun fashion, to see some of the things that we’re doing with the expectation that some of these kids will go on to Ottawa U, University of Toronto etc, Carleton U and they’ll pursue science and technology and then back to the work force, and hopefully to IBM as well,” he says.

While it is a way to give back to the community it also serves as a “broader investment in our world as well,” he says.

IBM Canada continues to work with the Canadian Research and Development Centre, which it created in 2012. The CRDC, along with seven founding universities, including the University of Ottawa, and Carleton University, then formed a consortium called the Southern Ontario Small Computing Information Platform.

SOSCIP made IBM technology available to groundbreaking collaborative research, Mr. Lee says, with positive results.

“We found that that’s helping to accelerate some of this research. They take on 50 research projects for IBM Canada issues, they’ve generated about 240 jobs in the Ontario area as well as spun off about 38 small companies.”

He says the companies are tackling “real world problems” like climate change and developing technology for enhanced medical research.

The company also continues to develop talent within its own walls with its Extreme Blue Leadership Development Program, which began in Ottawa in May and runs through August. Mr. Lee says the program focuses on IBM’s core values and core technologies.

“Myself as an IBM-er, I could work for many companies, but proud to be part of a company where it’s not just about revenue and profit, it’s about the bigger picture,” he says.

Meanwhile, work continues in the labs on Riverside Drive, with a highlight being Watson Analytics, what Mr. Lee calls “the next generation of smarter computing.”

“It’s also being developed as next generation smart analytics. So it’s not just about taking data and building visualizations and nice pretty spreadsheets,” he says. “It’s about looking at that and having software being a data scientist for you. Giving you outcomes, giving you information so you can use co-relations. We’re adding predictive models into it so hence the whole role of smarter analytics and smarter computing. A lot of that is generated in this lab here.”

While he won’t say how many people work in the lab, he says it is one of the larger labs in the area, and is quite clear on the question of whether the workforce is growing.

“Absolutely,” he says.

While the work of today continues, Mr. Lee says one of his main focuses will be on the work of tomorrow, continuing to develop programs like the Ignite Camp.

“I have a personal passion with having three kids to inspire our youth and I think that’s actually where it starts,” he says. “I walk into that room and I completely come out of it energized and it’s really neat to see. This is the future of the world, future IBM-ers, future folks for us.”