Canada's youth-key to an innovative future

Canada's youth-key to an innovative future

July 1, 2005

 This year marks the 100th anniversary of what has become known as Physics’ “miraculous year”.

In 1905, at the age of 26, Albert Einstein published the three papers that would lay the groundwork for modern physics—light quanta, Brownian Motion, and the Special Theory of Relativity.

In 1984, at the age of 24, Mike Lazaridis founded Research In Motion—one of Canada’s most illustrious technology successes.

In 2003, at the age of 12, Claire Pritchard won the Best in Fair Award at the Youth Science Foundation (YSF) Canada-Wide Science Fair for demonstrating that using a cell phone while driving has a greater effect on hand-eye coordination and reaction time than alcohol.

And in 2004, at the age of 16, Justin Tan competed at the Canada-Wide Science Fair with a project on the cryopreservation of eggs and embryos already in human clinical trials, and a commercialization agreement already in place.

Science is a game of the young. The fundamental insights that transform scientific practice germinate in youth.

Every year, more than half a million young Canadians participate in some form of project-based science—mostly in school. That’s as many as play organized hockey. But unlike hockey, which remains a leisure activity for youth and adults long after NHL dreams have yielded to reality, few kids (or adults) keep “playing” science. Too often, kids report, the challenge and excitement goes away, and what was exhilarating in the primary grades becomes hard, dull, and boring by late high school. This is exactly what would happen with hockey if we taught kids to play the way we teach them science: from a book, sitting in a classroom, memorizing terminology, and writing reports—in third person, if you please.

But hockey’s a game and science is, well… serious. So serious that Canada is projected to need 100,000 highly qualified people by 2010 in order to maintain a top 10 ranking in world research. Curiously, despite the fact that there are six million potential young scientists in Canadian schools, strategies to address this challenge are focused more on importing talent than better cultivating the homegrown pool—a strategy that could see many of our most talented youth becoming science spectators rather than players.

Hockey is also about being in a cold rink, lacing up your skates, and throwing yourself into it. Taking your bumps and bruises and finally scoring that goal. If we encouraged kids to play science that way—engaging their innate curiosity, formulating questions, experimenting with ways to solve them, going down the wrong path, and then suddenly “scoring” a eureka moment—most would appreciate what it means to do science, understand how science works and be better prepared to live in a country that envisions its future as a world leader in science, technology, and innovation. And more kids would pursue careers in science and engineering.

Fortunately, some kids do experience science and technology this way. At the highest level they’re investigating issues in their communities, inventing remarkable new devices, and developing promising new approaches to challenges in areas as diverse as the environment, health sciences, and physics.

Few provinces grant high school credits for this type of work and many students at this level actually report feeling punished by their school for doing independent research. It’s no surprise then that senior high school student participation in project-based science is declining across the country. In responding to demands for increased rigour and by attempting to “cover” an ever-increasing body of scientific content, it appears that Canadian science education may in fact be discouraging the very thing it seeks to develop. If Canada is serious about its future in science and technology, this situation must be addressed at the highest levels.

There is no second chance to be young—to see the world through the fearless, curious eyes of childhood. And there are no second chances for young Canadians who are fearless when it comes to mathematics; who eagerly peer through the lens of a microscope and ask the challenging questions that neither their parents nor their teachers can easily answer. Supporting and nurturing the scientific impulse is essential for our future and for the economic well-being of our country.

Who knows where the next Albert Einstein, Mike Lazaridis, Claire Pritchard, or Justin Tan will turn up—but they’re out there, and we’d better find good places for them to play, because they will invent the future.

Reni Barlow is Executive Director, Youth Science Foundation Canada.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.