Lucas Reece

CSpotlight: Giving Back Through Computer Science

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?

I’m a non-traditional student. I am 32 and spent the last decade working as an educator in public schools. I was a robotics coach at the middle school I worked at, as well as an after school coding instructor. In my first year coaching we were able to bring the team to the state tournament and received honors. It was really encouraging to see that hard work come to fruition and I enjoyed working in that space. I received a lot of encouragement from the principal at the school and colleagues and friends to consider returning to school to do engineering and computer science.

When I was first at the University of Minnesota 12 years ago, I was on a pre-med track. I had done around 74 credits and switched my major a few times but I never finished. I looked back on that period when I was working at the middle school and there were pangs of regret that I never finished my chemical engineering degree at the time. That didn’t end up being the major for me but I’m glad I came back to finish off my education with computer science. Being a little older and more mature, I have figured out how to make school work for me and utilize different resources on campus to get the support I need.

How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?

I had a few friends that worked in computer science that enjoyed the work that they did. I think compared to some of the other engineering disciplines, I enjoyed seeing the immediate product after you build a program and run it. In general I was open to different areas but working with coding and robotics at my school definitely played a role in deciding to major in computer science. Within the field, I took an internet programming class recently that I enjoyed. 

Congratulations on earning a department scholarship! How will this scholarship impact your academic and extracurricular work?

My biggest fear coming back to school had to do with finances. It kind of felt like I was playing double or nothing with coming back, because if I don’t finish I would be taking out more student debt without a degree. This scholarship has helped alleviate some of that fear and made it so I don’t have to take on a part-time job to offset the costs. It gives me the freedom that I need to be successful and put in the proper time to study and focus on classes.

Tell us more about your internship experiences.

This past summer I was a software engineering intern doing front-end development. It was a 12-week program. I was working on Microsoft MakeCode, which is an educational tool that students use to learn block-based coding. I really enjoyed the project because it aligned with my previous experiences working with students but I got to approach it in a new way. Now I’m using web development to enhance a website that will impact millions of students all over the world that are learning computer science. So the scale of that was really different compared to when I was working with 10-20 students on the robotics team or coding class. I still got to work with kids during user studies to get feedback on our programs. We also had a Twitch live stream where we would go on and build a game and students could watch and ask questions. I found it really rewarding to continue to work with students and educate in a new way. 

Before this summer I was an intern with Caterpillar on their data operations team. It was a remote internship during COVID. We did a hack-a-thon as well. The work I was doing was helping people who manage fleets of vehicles organize their operations. The majority of the work I was doing was back-end development for that position.

I also did a chemical engineering internship at Intel previously and have done some research with chemical engineering professors at the University on hydrogen fuel cells. So I have had a wide variety of experiences and internships. Plus I was a CA last year and a TA this year.

Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved? What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?

I am involved with the Competitive Programming Club. I was an officer both this year and last year. When I was previously on campus 14 years ago I started an unofficial running club at my dorm.  

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Go to office hours! By using all the resources available to you like office hours, Smart Learning and tutoring, you get to meet TAs and other students taking the course that can help support you and give you good strategies. It really helps build your network as well and get advice from other students who have been through it before. When I have felt stuck or discouraged and needed additional support or mentorship, I was able to tap into those networks to get help.

Also, something that helped me be successful was putting in time over winter and summer breaks to look over materials and learn languages. It helps you stay sharp on the material. Obviously you should take some time off, but it definitely pays off. I wanted to do everything in my power to feel prepared and that extra time gave me confidence. It can be intimidating when there are students that have been coding since they were kids, but if you put in the work and ask for help you can still set yourself up for success.

Tell us more about your work as a TA.

I am a TA for 1135 which is a one-credit ride along class to 1133. So we meet and go through long problem sets that help people going through the Intro to Python class get additional practice and understand course concepts. It is a great way for them to work in groups and meet other people in the same position. I took it during my first semester back at the University and it was a great way to meet other peers and get that additional practice and support to reinforce skills that are relevant to class work.

What are your plans after graduation?

I accepted a full time position as a Software Engineer with Microsoft and will be moving out to Washington. I was born on the East Coast and lived in the Midwest for many years so I’m looking forward to checking out the West Coast. I’m looking forward to new experiences and going on amazing hikes in the mountains. I hope that I can keep working in the education space via computer science.