By Sharon Aschaiek
Historically, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have usually been the innovators at the helm of social change. Their contributions to North American society, particularly over the last couple of centuries, have dramatically advanced the North American standard of living, and their pioneering efforts have been recognized and celebrated by society at large.
Yet, despite all of their accomplishments, young and budding innovators still find themselves the target of "nerd" stereotyping.
Justin Eickmeier, 18, of Pickering, spent the summer of 2001 at Shad Valley's University of Calgary campus, where he spent time navigating Banff.
"In high school there's a lot of smart kids, but there's a taboo when it comes to being intense in science and engineering," says 29-year-old Montrealer Christine Desmarais.
Physics was Desmarais' passion in high school, but she didn't feel comfortable openly sharing her interest. She also found the curriculum and the lab exercises somewhat lacking.
Then, midway through her education at College Brebeuf, at the age of 17, a friend introduced her to Shad Valley -- and everything started to change.
"Shad helps you see that it's okay (to like science and engineering), I'm not the only one, and it's fun," Desmarais says. "I think it helps a lot of kids who have this inclination -- it opens their eyes."
Desmarais is one of tens of thousands of Canadian students to have participated in the intense academic program of Shad Valley, which works to develop the country's future leaders.
For the month of July, students study and live in an enriched learning environment where the curriculum squares in on technology, business and the sciences. Innovative methodologies, including labs, lectures, workshops, field trips, seminars and notable guest speakers, are used to open students' eyes to the vast range of career opportunities.
Shad selects students through a rigorous application process that involves examining their grades, intellect, creativity, initiative, interpersonal skills. Once selected, they will attend the program at one of 10 Canadian university campuses, with each campus accommodating 50 to 60 students and employing 10 staff.
Christine Desmarais says Shad played a role in her qualifying as a Rhodes scholar.
"When you bring brilliant faculty, staff and emerging leaders together in a community of learning and practice, it provides a rich forum for students to understand what they're capable of," says Mary Dever, national director of development for Shad Valley. "It's a holistic, renaissance approach designed to challenge students in every way, all of their intellectual capacities."
According to Dever, who has been with the organization for four years (Shad Valley is the flagship program of Shad International, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Waterloo, Ont.), the program may be the only one of its kind in the world.
She says the intense, immersive nature of the program fuels the students to achieve their best.
"When you encourage all of them to be what they can be, the vibrancy of the whole community is the most compelling," Dever says. "They will move the company they work for and the country forward."
The inspiration was certainly there for Desmarais, who spent one month at Shad Valley at the Sherbrook University campus in Quebec. The intensity of the program, and connecting with like-minded peers, was what she had been craving.
"It was a great opportunity to meet people your age who are intense like you with similar interests, and the activities really challenge you," Desmarais says.
Moreover, the comprehensive instruction in AI, electronics, programming and more helped her understand how the disciplines directly made an impact in the world.
At Lake Moraine in Banff National Park, Justin Eickmeier got to climb two mountains.
"There were actual parts in the labs that I never got to play around with in high school," Desmarais says. "They showed us how they could apply to real world problems, which you don't normally study at that age."
Established in 1981, Shad Valley was conceived by Derek Lane Smith, then a teacher at St. Andrews College in Aurora, Ont. who imagined a more holistic approach to education for high school students.
Over the past two decades, Shad Valley has developed into a large-scale, award-winning program with more than 200 company and organizational partnerships. Many "Shads," as they refer to themselves, will go on to work for these companies for a period, in areas such as IT, engineering, market research, finance, human resources, technical writing and PR.
The formula has more than worked: more than 85% of alumnae go on to study science and engineering in university and are top performers; the majority of these students go on to garner awards and scholarships, and about half pursue graduate degrees.
It certainly worked for Justin Eickmeier, a student at St. Mary's High School in Pickering, Ont. who completed a Shad Valley program last summer at the University of Calgary.
Eickmeier began the program with an interest in aerospace engineering, but by the end of the month things had changed.
"Based on what I learned there, I became more interested in marine engineering," says Eickmeier, now 18. "It really broadened my horizons."
What really impressed him was the roster of accomplished guest speakers, including a Canadian who had climbed Mount Everest, someone who worked on the Apollo space program, a martial arts expert, people working in robotics, philosophers and a Holocaust survivor.
While there, he also climbed two different mountains in Banff, and made many lasting friendships.
"I got to do things I never did before," he says. "Being so close to 60 people for so long, you walk away with friendships that last a lifetime."
Perhaps what's most impressive about Shad Valley's track record is that 13 Shads have become Rhodes scholars -- including Christine Desmarais.
After graduating from high school, she studied engineering at McGill University for four years, then studied physics at the University of British Columbia as an exchange student. She then qualified as a Rhodes scholar, and studied experimental psychology at Oxford University for two years.
After a one-year stint working as a management consultant, she now works as a mechanical engineer for Montreal-based CAE, a company that develops software for flight simulators.
"I definitely think (Shad Valley) helps you along the way," Desmarais says. "You have no idea what can be done with technology -- it opens your eyes."
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