Stretching Minds

John Schofield July 24 2000

Stretching Minds

John Schofield July 24 2000

Stretching Minds


John Schofield

Peals of laughter roll through the room. At the front, 12 precocious teens twist and contort themselves into the shape of a human massage chair, then vigorously shake their supervisor as she reclines on a latticework of limbs. Clearly another summer-camp shenanigan. Or so it seems, until Carolyn MacGregor, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s department of systems design engineering, resumes her lecture on ergonomics, and the young audience turns to her with rapt attention. Later in the day, they’re treated to a talk on lateral thinking and a presentation on the power of the Canadian economy. It’s all in a day’s fun for the whiz-kids at Shad Valley, an elite summer program for high-school students aged 16 to 19. “It really opens your mind,” says 17-year-old Neil Abraham, a student from Saint John, N.B., who heads into Grade 12 this fall with a 98 average. “I’ve never been part of anything so inspiring.”

Forget about crazy camp songs and roasting weenies by the fire. Most students at Shad Valley, which runs until July 28 at Waterloo and eight other Canadian universities, would much

rather learn about linear algebra, state-of-the-art robotics, or improvisational jazz. Named for a creek on the campus of St. Andrew’s College, a private school north of Toronto where it was launched in 1981, the residential camp takes the academic cream of the country’s high schools—536 students this year—-and stretches their minds and bodies through a long list of university-level lectures, workshops and recreational activities. For their major project, the students, known as “Shads,” are expected to design and complete a business plan for a new product—this year related to crime prevention. The goal? To forge cutting-edge captains for the new economy, who will help advance Canada well into the 21st century.

Shad Valley’s combined emphasis on science, technology and entrepreneurship has earned it an international reputation. This year, for the first time, the program has expanded beyond Canada to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and Shad officials are eyeing other countries in a bid to better prepare students for globalization. About 250 corporate sponsors contribute to the program’s $2-million annual cost, and employ most Shads for the balance of the summer. The entire experience creates a world of opportu-

nity, and ignites a new passion for learning. Eleven Shads have gone on to become Rhodes Scholars. But one-dimensional students need not apply. “These aren’t your stereotypical thick-glasses kind of kids,” says Tom Keenan, who teaches computer science at the University of Calgary and has served as a Shad Valley staff member there since 1984. “They have a whole range of interests, and the real goal here is to give them the ability to realize their dreams.”

Getting there is an uphill climb. All 830 applications this year were split among the participating universities and vetted by at least five faculty members on each campus. Candidates must submit their marks and a teacher’s reference letter, along with a challenging questionnaire designed to gauge their interpersonal skills, well-roundedness and commitment to science, technology and entrepreneurship. Other questions are more offbeat. In one, students are quizzed on what five books they would take if they were stranded on a desert island. Corporate partners have their

choice of which students to sponsor, and contribute $4,000 for each. Students matched with companies pay $1,300. However, work-term earnings more than cover the amount, and bursaries are also available.

For those who make the cut, Shad Valley often comes as a revelation in more ways than one. Most participants are used to being the best in their class. But the sheer concentration of brainpower is a humbling experience, and teaches the importance of teamwork. For once in their lives, Shads find, everyone in the group shares a voracious appetite for learning, a sharp intellect and an intense drive to succeed. Take Bea Sze, a 16-year-old student at Glenforest Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont. The daughter of a mechanical engineer and a stay-at-home mom, Sze maintained a 94 average last year while juggling an extracurricular load that included serving on the students’ council, the school newspaper, the math team and a school environmental group—to name just a few. “Since Em the first generation in Canada,” says Sze, “I feel a certain obligation to do the best I can.”

Shad Valley offers young overachievers the sense of belonging that often eludes them at their own schools. In these technological times, most students with a ken for computers

At Shad Valley, top high-school students test their limits, and change their lives

or science are granted a grudging respect, if not outright admiration. But the transformation is far from complete, says Jack Pal, president of Waterloo, Ont.-based Shad International, which administers the program. “It’s still not cool to be bright or to be seen to be bright.”

Not so at Shad Valley. From early in the morning until late at night and even into the wee hours, students are encouraged to wallow in knowledge. Fectures are featured every morning and most afternoons, usually on some aspect of mathematics, technology or design. The University of Calgary’s Keenan explores the world of computer security, while Ed Jernigan, chairman of Waterloo’s systems design engineering department, expounds on his specialty, the creation of “intelligent” machines. Morning seminars, held over the last three weeks, cover a universe of topics, from watchmaking to laser microscopy to American Sign Fanguage. Evening guest speakers include entrepreneurs and respected researchers. In between, students enjoy recreational activities such as camping, hiking or rock climbing.

In the process, the bonds that form are strong, and many students establish lasting friendships. “At Shad, I could revel in my interests,” says Ka-Ping Yee, a Shad alumnus from Winnipeg who now works as a production software engineer for Industrial Fight and Magic in San Rafael, Calif. “It gave me a freedom to be myself that I didn’t think I had.”

The experience is also a stretch for the teachers, and the universities have parlayed the program into an effective recruiting tool. Waterloo’s Jernigan says up to one-third of the first-year class in systems design engineering is typically made up of former Shads. From a pedagogical

point of view, says Peter Northrop, director of this year’s Shad Valley program at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., the need to be constantly on one’s toes has made him a better instructor. “You don’t get any silly questions,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be surrounded by these kids.” Withdrawal symptoms are inevitable. But many Shads go on to glories they might have never before imagined. Most stay in Canada. Many, however, already see a borderless

world. “If there’s an area I want to get into and it involves moving somewhere else, then that’s not a bad thing,” says Angelee Verma, a 17-year-old Vancouverite at-

tending this year’s Shad Valley program at Waterloo. Christina Stachulak, a fourth-year biochemistry student at the University of Ottawa and a 1996 participant in Shad Valley Calgary, is gearing up for a global career, as well. This summer, she is working for an international bioethics think-tank at Harvard University, and will fly to Rome in August to attend a medical ethics conference. “When you’re chosen for something like Shad and you’re pushed to your limits,” says Stachulak, 22, “you develop wings and you fly.” And where Shad students land seems limited only by their ambitions. E3

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