Eggs for eggheads

Eggs for eggheads

Derek Clouthier confirms that a good breakfast goes a long way
January 1, 2008
How much sleep does a teenager really need? Does a good breakfast matter? How much exercise is enough? Does cramming for a test work? These questions can be huge points of conflict between parents and kids, especially around exam time. Parents nag from the perspective of experience. Kids do what they think is best. Both sides “know” they are right.

But fear not…some resolution may be on the way. An Ottawa-area teenager has uncovered important lessons for kids and parents, and winning himself national recognition in the process.

At age 17, Derek Clouthier was first inspired by a poster he saw in his local gym, in his hometown of Arnprior, Ontario. “It said not drinking enough water reduced a person’s ability to do arithmetic,” he remembers. Never one to take anything at face value, Derek decided to study the statement for his Grade 12 science fair project. He made the research relevant to students by tweaking the focus to exercise, nutrition, and sleep, and how they affect performance in a variety of tasks.

Derek designed a series of exams to test visual, motor, verbal, mathematical, and writing skills, then administered them twice to 45 high school and 15 Grade six students—once after eating a healthy breakfast and once without any breakfast. He also recorded their exercise and sleep regimens for the week prior. After spending dozens of hours analyzing the results, he was left with statistics that will leave sloths and parents cheering, most of the time.

“Exercise doesn’t make a difference,” Derek says. But breakfast and sleep do. Kids who drank pop for breakfast or didn’t get enough sleep performed poorly. Kids who regularly eat and sleep well, performed better. So what did Derek find to be the magic formula for exam success? A breakfast consisting of coffee and eggs after a late night of cramming. “The eggs are a nutrient-rich meal, and coffee is a short-term stimulant…both help with concentration,” he explains.

In all, the voluntary project took him 250 hours, a major effort of self-motivation for a high school student, but not a surprise to his teachers. “If a problem developed or he was curious about some concept, he would do further research,” says Karen Dodds, who was Derek’s Grade 12 biology teacher at Arnprior District High School. “He does not let challenges deter him.”

Almost two years later, Dodds still shows Derek’s award-winning project to her students. The project won scholarships, awards, and an invite to the 2006 Canada-Wide Science Fair. But for Derek, a self-confessed “geek,” the recognition wasn’t the point. “My motivation for the project was primarily for the experience. I enjoyed it 100 percent,” he says. “I always want to know what’s really going on. This was something I wanted to do without a teacher or parent dictating what I could study—that was the best part.”

Now a student at the University of Guelph, Derek continues to demonstrate his self-motivation and independence. He plans to take courses while also working a co-op term so he can earn a double major in biochemistry, as well as math and statistics. Even with this demanding schedule, Derek still volunteers his time to help investigate problems. In his first year calculus class, for example, there was a website where students could post questions. Jack Weiner, Derek’s calculus professor, points to Derek as one of only two students who was “vigilant at reading posts and helping fellow students. He’s not only bright, but he’s motivated to help others.”

So, has Derek’s high school science project changed his behaviour? Yes, but probably not for long. While he does exercise, eat well, and get plenty of sleep (except when cramming for exams), he can’t wait to start a career and put his insatiable drive to work.

“I can see myself working crazy long hours, like doctors are notorious for,” he declares. “As long as all I do is work and sleep, I’ll be fine.” Just don’t tell his mom.