June 14, 2020

Class of 2021: 'Infinite' learning possibilities inspire creative computer science grad

Kendra Wannamaker says computer science is at its best when students incorporate personal perspectives
Kendra during her semester abroad in Berlin, Germany

Kendra Wannamaker’s creativity was unlocked by computer science.

Her portfolio is a sight to behold. From data embroidery to a bionic bird, to a device that helps you track all kinds of your personal data, Wannamaker’s undergraduate and graduate research goes beyond the traditional desk-bound tasks that may be associated with computer science.

Wannamaker is graduating this week. She has already worked for several months at Autodesk, an international software firm, as a senior research engineer in the human-computer interaction (HCI) and visualization group.

Wannamaker with prototype of her I/O Bits self-tracking device.

Wannamaker with prototype of her I/O Bits self-tracking device.

Urge to explore fuels exciting student experience

Wannamaker’s career in computer science began somewhat by accident. She started her undergraduate degree in another program, and ended up taking a mandatory computer science course as part of her studies.

“I loved it,” she says. “It was exactly the way I wanted to think and solve problems. I switched my major over very soon afterwards.”

She started working with Dr. Lora Oehlberg, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and part of the iLab. Oehlberg introduced her to the vast creative possibilities in HCI, and from there, a spark was ignited.

“We thought it would be cool to pick meaningful data and embroider it on soft things, such as baby data on a baby blanket,” Wannamaker recalls.

“I think computer science is at its best when you take something you love and bring it into computer science. In the iLab, people have all kinds of interests that they’d bring forward.”

Wannamaker presenting her data embroidery at the 2018 IEEE VIS conference in Berlin

Wannamaker presenting her data embroidery at the 2018 IEEE VIS conference in Berlin

As a graduate student, Wannamaker focused her research on HCI and data visualization. Much of it centred on personal data and situated visualizations, which is the notion of placing personally relevant graphs throughout homes and workspaces. Through her research she ran several design workshops, built custom hardware, and ran a study where she taught others how to build their own self-trackers.

In the spirit of teaching others, she also worked as a teaching assistant, and was a 2020 recipient of the Fred A. McKinnon Award, described by her students as a passionate educator who possesses broad and deep understanding of algorithmic thinking.

Wannamaker used her master's as an opportunity to explore the world, including a competition in Edmonton, a conference in San Diego, a week-long workshop in Paris, and a semester abroad at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany. “My master's gave me the unique opportunity to travel in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

Wannamaker leading a sketching and ideation workshop.

Wannamaker leading a sketching and ideation workshop.

Possibilities in computer science are ‘infinite’

Alongside creating her own opportunities to see the world, Wannamaker helped other young women with their own.

She fondly recalls her experience as a technical mentor at Technovation, an annual competition where teams of girls in middle and high school levels create, develop, and market their own app. The apps are presented in a business pitch competition, with regional winners taking part in the world championships in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. The Faculty of Science has been hosting the Calgary regional competition regularly since 2019.

Wannamaker, who had been running the Android programming classes for the girls, says, “One of the teams lost their business mentor, so I brought my mom in to take that role. The team — the Robot Unicorns — ended up going all the way to fifth place in the whole world! It was incredible to watch.”

Wannamaker encourages girls thinking about careers in computer science not to be intimidated.

“When I thought about switching into computer science, I was really nervous at first,” she says. “It felt like a lot of the students, mostly the men, had been doing it since they were young, and it was intimidating to feel like I had to catch up to that level of experience.

“As I grew and learned, I realized that there wasn’t any catching up to do. There was so much room to grow. Computer science is an infinite thing. You can study it your whole life and never come close to knowing everything. Bring yourself into computer science, and you will really benefit from having your own unique experience.”

Wannamaker with second-place prize at coding competition.

Wannamaker with second-place prize at coding competition.

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

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