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Summer camp brings Indigenous youth to Dal for math and computer science fun

July 3, 2024

(Story written by Kenneth Conrad and can be found on the Dal News site - https://www.dal.ca/news/2024/06/27/indigenous-youth-math-computer-science-camp.html )

If you heard a wailing electric guitar echoing through the halls of the Chase Building this week, it was, in fact, for educational purposes.

A session led by Dr. Jason Brown, known for his research combining math and music, where participants played percussion instruments and “felt” the mathematics in the rhythm was one of the activities in the inaugural Indigenous Math Camp, which saw 14 youth from Mi’kmaw communities throughout Nova Scotia arrive at Dalhousie shortly after the National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21.

Led by co-directors Dr. Brown of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and Dr. Nauzer Kalyaniwalla of the Faculty of Computer Science, the five-day camp showcased the fun side of math and programming concepts and provided a taste of the campus experience. It built on the foundation established by the long-running Black Educators’ Association (BEA) – Dalhousie Math Camp, which has brought African Nova Scotian youth to Dal for summer math and coding sessions for the past 30 years.

BEA camp founder Dr. Chelluri Sastri, a retired Dal math professor, was also eager to establish a camp for Indigenous students, but it took until a partnership with Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, the organization which represents the educational interests of 12 Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia, to get it up and running.

“Indigenous students represent a completely underserved segment,” Dr. Kalyaniwalla says, estimating he has taught only a handful of Indigenous students in his computer science classes over the years.

Experiencing life on campus

After checking into their LeMarchant Place residence rooms on Saturday with their chaperones, the students, aged 12-14, were welcomed to campus with an introduction from Elder Tom Christmas.

During the camp, which ran from June 22-26, the students cycled through different workshops and activities led by faculty and grad student volunteers in the computer labs and classrooms of Dal’s Studley Campus. Dr. Brown led the math portion of the camp’s sessions, with Dr. Kalyaniwalla overseeing the computer science side of things, namely the introduction of Scratch, a programming language mainly used as an educational tool for youth.

“All the activities are very visual, very hands-on,” says Dr. Brown. “They’re designed to get into the creative part of mathematics.”

Outside of the classroom, students made the most of their time on campus, taking in the Alan Syliboy exhibition at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, enjoying an evening of karaoke in the Ko’jua Okuom space in the Killam Library, and visiting the Indigenous Student Centre.

With a focus on fun, Dr. Brown hopes the inaugural group of campers enjoyed sampling the first-year university experience, living in residence and meeting peers from across the province, as well as gaining a further appreciation of math and computer science.

“I think they’re going to see that there is more math in their lives than they expected.”