Every summer I get to peer into Canada’s future through a very unique window called Shad Valley. This remarkable program for some of Canada’s brightest young people has been called a “boot camp for brains.”
It’s a high intensity challenge for our top Grade 11 and Grade 12 students, now running on eight campuses across Canada. For an entire month, we live, learn, work, eat, study and have fun together on a 24/7 basis. By the end of the program, they know a lot about me, and I sure know a lot about them.
Two things became crystal clear to me this year in talking with this year’s crop of “Shads.” One is that at least some of our educational systems are letting them down.
Take a simple thing like binary arithmetic. You’d expect that an elite bunch like this would know all about that simple bit of mathematics. In fact, when I started the program in Calgary back in 1984, that was pretty much the case. This year, when I got them working on a Turing machine for binary addition, some of their little faces went blank.
“You have seen this in school…” I said hopefully. Most nodded but a few admitted their ignorance. I won’t point fingers at particular provinces, but I will say that you can pretty well predict the quality of their computer preparation from where they live.
Of course, with their raw brainpower it took me about fifteen minutes to get them all up to speed. But surely some math or computer teacher could have done that for them long ago.
Compared to their 1984 counterparts, the 2001 Shads know a lot about Napster and ICQ, IRC and Instant Messenger. These things didn’t exist 17 years ago, though we did cobble together something that was a lot like IRC using the Multics “chat” function.
But on the fundamentals, things as simple as algorithm design and binary numbers, we seem to be failing many of them. One student gave me an incredibly depressing account of her Grade 11 computer class, which consisted of boring worksheets to teach the mechanics of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Access.
“They’d hand these out and the answers would be right there so we’d just cut and paste them onto the worksheets,” she said. “At my school, Computers is a course for people who want a really easy credit but don’t care if they learn anything.”
On a happier note my own home province of Alberta is taking computer science seriously in the schools. It recently introduced a well thought out curriculum which focuses on improving your thinking with technology, not where to click the mouse. Whether or not the province’s teachers can handle it is, of course, another question.
My second observation, and it may well be related to the first, is that fewer and fewer of the Shad students seem to be interested in a career in information technology. When I polled the 2001 group, almost half said they wanted to be doctors or medical researchers. There was a sprinkling of votes for teacher, university professor and lawyer, plus a number of future engineers and entrepreneurs. But even those didn’t specifically mention computers as much as they used to. One said he has his mind set on becoming a “weapons engineer.” Just what the world needs.
Who failed them? Has the dot-com meltdown soured them on our profession? Or is it just that their school teachers don’t know enough about IT to show it off properly.
I like to think we accomplish that in Shad Valley, by exposing them to everything from Cryptography to Neural Networks and Quantum Mechanics. They may not have the formal background for all of these subjects, but we give them a chance to be fast learners.
I’ve seen Shad Valley students pick up a Virtual Reality toolkit and create beautiful artificial environments in a few days. Others have learned complex simulation languages and built intricate models of things like the stock market. They’ve used high end animation and data analysis systems like Maya and IDL, thanks to the support of the companies who donated licences for their software.
We have to do more. Shad Valley only serves the top few per cent of our students, and we know that many more will be needed to populate Canada’s IT industry.
What’s missing, in my humble opinion, is someone to convey the excitement of working with technology to students while they’re still young enough to be influenced. Sure we need doctors and lawyers, but our best kids should also be ready to take on the challenge of high tech entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship.
Also, please remember that in our day-to-day lives, each of us probably has the chance to influence a young person in a positive way. The sagging popularity of high tech careers hit me like a splash of cold mountain water. I hope it does the same for you, and that you do something about it.
You can find more information on Shad Valley at www.shad.ca.
Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.