By John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press on December 19, 2023.
TORONTO – The whispers started before Pascal Siakam’s name was even announced. Dozens of students from across Toronto would get to meet one of their heroes, thanks to their work in data science.
“We love you!” screamed one enthusiastic child as Siakam entered the gymnasium at Monsignor Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School in the city’s northwest corner.
Siakam’s PS43 charity has supported Data Dunkers, an extracurricular program where students in the Toronto Catholic District School Board learn about data science using statistics from the NBA and WNBA, for more than a year.
“I believe technology is the future,” said Siakam as kids played basketball nearby. “Obviously, we see that everything is technology based and I think our kids are the future and we’ve got to continue to equip them with tools that are going to help them.
“Not only in their lives but in anything they want to do.”
The hour-long event included having Siakam rebounding and catching missed shots from students between the ages of 12 and 16 as they created a data set on shots attempted from two, four, six, eight and 10 feet away. Some kids were too busy peppering Siakam with questions like “how much milk do you drink in a day?” to actually take shots, however.
“Most of the time, kids don’t really get to do (programs like Data Dunkers), I didn’t get to do that,” said Siakam. “To see their courage of even going into that program and wanting to learn and see how excited they are, watching them work and the things that they did, I’m just super excited.
“Hopefully we can continue to grow (the program) and obviously huge shout out to (corporate sponsor) Dell Technologies, just making it happen.”
Dr. Brendan Browne, the director of education for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said the program introduces students to data science in a fun and engaging way, but also might open up young people’s eyes to career possibilities.
“We want to show you that there are different pathways to follow that might not be pathways that you would have thought about before,” said Browne, addressing the assembled students. “And recognizing the importance of digging into data and information and what that might mean for the future, how that applies to real-world experiences.”
Siakam, a two-time all-star and member of Toronto’s 2019 NBA championship team, also sat and watched as pairs of students from schools from across Toronto made presentations on the data science they have learned through Data Dunkers.
“I thought it was great, I thought was awesome, man,” said Siakam. “I was a shy kid when I was growing up so doing the presentation and seeing them know their stuff, they were so brave and even more importantly, the work that they put in.”
Siakam said that it’s important for him to give back to Toronto’s community because the city has become his home.
“It’s everything to me,” he said. “Outside of Cameroon, it is probably the most I have spent anywhere in my life.
“It feels like home to me, having a supportive community, being part of it, it’s just incredible.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2023.