Under the Shad Valley model, success is about much more than science. The not-for-profit educational organization presents an innovation-based, entrepreneurial approach to qualifying high school students — with the ultimate goal of building a better Canada
BY BILL CORBETT
Designed for bright Canadian high school students, the Shad Valley International program nudges many of its graduates into engineering. But when Kevin Wilfing, P.Eng., attended the month-long program in 1991, he almost talked himself onto a different path.
“I was leaning towards engineering before I took the program,” says Mr. Wilfing, who travelled from his home in northern Saskatchewan to a Shad Valley campus in Winnipeg. “But I really enjoyed working on a business presentation during the program, and I considered changing my degree to business. A professor at Shad Valley told me I should take engineering, then do an MBA later, if I wanted.”
He took that advice and, along with about half of his Shad Valley class, ended up becoming an engineer. “With engineering, there are opportunities to travel the world and do whatever you want to do,” says Mr. Wilfing — who, as if to prove his point, recently moved from Calgary to Scotland to work as a project manager in ConocoPhillips’ North Sea unit.
Science and More
Mr. Wilfing’s second thoughts speak to the breadth of the Shad Valley experience. Since it began in 1981, Shad Valley has provided more than 11,000 students with an intense summer program focused on the sciences, technology and entrepreneurship.
Students generally travel outside their province to one of 10 participating Canadian university campuses. In classes of about 50, they attend lectures and workshops, and take part in group projects — to design a marketable product, from concept to completion.
“Our vision is to help increase the long-term innovation and entrepreneurial capacity of Canada,” says Barry Bisson, P.Eng., the president of Shad Valley, which operates from Waterloo, Ont. “Our focus is on exceptional students who also demonstrate initiative, creativity and leadership.”
How exceptional are Shad Valley students? Mr. Bisson is no slouch in the engineering and business worlds. In fact, he’s a former, longtime engi-neering professor and department chair at University of New Brunswick, and he has an MBA from Harvard. Yet he admits that as a high school student, he wouldn’t have made the cut.
While participants typically are strong in math and science, there’s a sprinkling of artistic and musical talent, too — among students and the instructors drawn from academia and industry. This exposes students to a broad range of experiences. Still, about 35 per cent of graduates end up taking university engineering programs, and 40 per cent gravitate to other sciences, including geology and geophysics.
Exit surveys indicate some 60 per cent of participants feel the program influences their choice of undergraduate degree program. Mary McPhail is a prime example.
A physics buff in high school, she says the program “exposed me to different opportunities in the real world,” while helping her select a post-secondary education path. She’s now a first-year engineering student at the University of Alberta.
Internship Comes Next
But there’s more to Shad Valley, before university starts. The month-long programs are often just the first phase, with many graduates going on to one-month or summer-long internships at sponsoring companies. Alberta oil-and-gas companies and engineering firms are common sponsors. In 2008, 10 of the 19 Alberta internships were in engineering environments.
“During their internship programs with such companies, students get to rub shoulders with many kinds of engineers, discover the types of careers that are possible and see the relevance of high school math and science and how it can be applied to the engineering profession,” says Mr. Bisson. “Working for an engineering company during their internship can have a huge impact on their propensity to choose engineering.”
Ms. McPhail certainly agrees. “I’d never worked in an office before,” she says of her internship with EnCana Corporation. “I was exposed to what engineering can do and met some really cool people.”
While the Shad Valley campus program may stress science and math fundamentals, it certainly doesn’t ignore a broader approach. “There’s a lot of emphasis on an entrepreneurial mindset and bringing different disciplines together to solve important problems,” says Mr. Bisson.
“In our group project last year, the focus was on designing with conscience. We want to try to help mould young people into global citizens, with a broad perspective that also looks at business, social and environmental issues.”
The campus experience adds up to an intense, exciting month for high school students. It’s a unique and challenging opportunity to work on interesting projects with some of their brightest Canadian contemporaries.
Mr. Wilfing remembers the adrenaline-fueled, program finale. Then his family picked him up for the long ride home — and he slept nearly all the way.
Albertan Participants on the 2009 List
Historically, Alberta has embraced Shad Valley in high numbers, trailing only Ontario and B.C. in participants annually. Competition to secure one of Shad Valley’s 500 national places is always fierce, and 2009 is no exception.
To date, 45 highly motivated young Albertans have successfully completed the application process and secured a spot, while 19 hopeful candidates are on the waiting list. Again this year, applicants represent a wide range of locations across the province — from Calgary and Edmonton to smaller regions such as Barrhead, Bonnyville, De Winton, Okotoks, Pincher Creek and St. Albert.
Many participants seek post-program internships to apply their new-found skills, and gain experience in the business world.
For more information on Shad Valley and getting involved, contact Volker Mendritzki, Shad’s Alberta team member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.