More than 500 of Canada's top young scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, including two Grade 7 students from École Riverside School in Thompson, Sage Cherevaty and Dane Wanke, have been selected to tackle the toughest challenges facing their families, their communities and their country this week at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
These innovation pioneers are teens, 12 to 18 years old.
Most adults harbour an outdated image of science fairs.
Forget volcanoes created from vinegar and baking soda. Think instead of a cell phone app that detects when someone carrying the phone has fallen and dials 9-1-1. That's one of the projects featured this year, selected from the top entries in 103 regional science fairs across the country.
Or a hockey helmet that prevents concussions, soil bacteria that break down polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) in landfills or a technique to target and kill cancer cells that avoids the side effects of today's anticancer drugs. All were winning projects in recent science fairs.
Science fairs have a valuable legacy for the individuals, their communities and the country. The inventiveness and hard work that participants demonstrate continue into adult life. For example, the biggest cash commitment ever on CBC-TV's Dragons' Den was $1.25 million for a stake in the Uno electric street vehicle – a top project in 2007.
Local science fairs began in 1957 and the national fair is celebrating its 51st year. The 1980 national science fair was held in Thompson. So there are a lot of past participants out there – heading up cutting-edge companies like Kobo, spearheading Canada's space telescope, founding a university centre for entrepreneurs. In recent years, more than nine in 10 participants say they intend to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or medicine.
A big reason for outstanding fair performances is that these young people are willing to give anything a shot. They're not fettered by the knowledge that something has been tried before and failed.
This can-do attitude is crucial for the country in the highly technological world of today and tomorrow. Canada's front line in that global competition will certainly feature many past participants in science fairs.
The Canada-Wide Science Fair also acts as an incubator for innovation across the land, because it is held both in major cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and also in smaller communities, such as Truro, N.S. and next year, Lethbridge, Alberta.
This peripatetic character gives other young people a first-hand glimpse into the vital role that science and engineering could play in their lives. During the Charlottetown fair, for instance, more than 2,700 students from Grade 5 to Grade 9 will travel from across the province to meet and talk with the participants. That's one in every three P.E.I. kids in those grades.
The fair's influence extends widely in other ways as well. Roughly 150 volunteers help run the outings and other associated events, more than 175 teachers and parents serve as chaperones and 400 experts from colleges, universities, research labs and industry do the judging. The total budget is more than $1 million, plus the money raised locally to pay the travel costs of participants.
Perhaps most important, the Canada-Wide Science Fair is usually a life-changing experience. It confers star status on those young people with a passion for investigating interesting questions and coming up with solutions to problems. It graduates tomorrow's young scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.
Reni Barlow is the executive director of Youth Science Canada, a registered charity that oversees the Canada-Wide Science Fair. Barlow's interest in science began at a young age. He had an early passion for entomology and recalls that his extensive knowledge of the NASA Gemini and Apollo space programs resulted in a CBC Radio interview at age seven. He completed a B.Sc. in biology and neuroscience at the University of Toronto in 1982 and year later he completed a B.Ed. at Queen's, University at Kingston, Ont.