Self-enrichment, one of the four cornerstones that guides the Waterloo Unlimited programs, encourages participants to be lifelong learners, to take change of their own learning and to figure out how to make the most of all their experiences and knowledge. This picture shows Professor Ed Jernigan engaging with a recent community of high school students on a “how to take a lecture” seminar — walking participants through the steps of getting the most out of every lecture.
A FIVE DAY PILOT PROGRAM for grade 10 students, built around the theme of vision, ran at the University of Waterloo in mid-November 2004. On the following Monday, a local high school enrichment teacher reported that one of the students she sent came up to her in the hallway that morning, threw his arms around her and said “Thank you for sending me to Unlimited! It changed my life!” We knew then that the Unlimited program was going be the sort of transformational experience that would make a difference for our young students.
Waterloo Unlimited was designed at the request of the University of Waterloo’s then provost Amit Chakma in 2004 to provide a unique enrichment experience for high potential high school students. There is no better way to understand the Unlimited experience than through the stories of our students. Eric Kennedy, one of the many students who have written to share their stories over the years, relates his experience below. He describes his three exposures to Unlimited in his last three years of high school as foundational to his subsequent success in university and post-graduate school. Unlimited not only gave him a taste of university life, it introduced him to the essential skills that made him an engaged student, that sharpened his critical thinking, enhanced his creativity, helped him see complex problems from the perspective of different disciplines, and included him in a growing community of like-minded learners that sustains him to this day, 12 years after his first Unlimited experience in 2005.
This past May, Unlimited ran its 39th and final program on the theme of Change. What follows is my reflection on my Unlimited experience as its director from creation to conclusion.
Ed Jernigan waits to transport Unlimited students into fruit space by way of illustrating machine perception and pattern recognition.
In our first year, I recruited young faculty members to contribute talks and workshops on the program theme, often meeting over a beer at the Graduate House on campus. In one of those meetings, another young faculty member, sitting at a nearby table, began drawing his chair closer until he joined the conversation. He went on to be our most frequent contributor and supporter. In reflecting on his 12 years of Unlimited experiences, Professor James Danckert said recently:
Unlimited is a smorgasbord of opportunities and experiences. I tell my undergraduates seeking volunteer experience to do so broadly – you simply never know what might spark your imagination and drive your career in a direction you'd never thought of. Unlimited does this for high school students and is priceless because of it. I have participated in Unlimited for many years and in many distinct ways (large group lectures, smaller hands-on experiences and leading a day for grade 12 students in which we learned how to read a scientific article – something many undergraduates still struggle with). At every step it has been an enormously rewarding experience. The students are switched on and never fail to challenge and inquire. Not pushing for grades, but simply striving for knowledge. The benefits then are most definitively bi-directional. The University of Waterloo prides itself on being an innovator – in research and teaching. Unlimited does this in spades. It sets the university apart from others by stimulating the brightest young minds from across the country.
It was also quite clear from early on that Unlimited was going to be as transforming for the university, its staff and faculty, as it was for our high school students.
Getting hands-on experience in the Faculty of Applied Health Science’s Kinesiology lab, students take-in lectures, workshops, and skills session in the arts, environment, science, engineering and mathematics alongside professors and grad students.
We began seeing students returning year after year, for programs on themes of vision, design, research and change. And naturally many of those students continued on into undergraduate programs at Waterloo – over a third of Unlimited participants wind up there. One of our early students, Eric Kennedy, came to Vision in Grade 10, Design in Grade 11, and Research in Grade 12. He then became the first student to apply to the new Knowledge Integration degree program that was itself built around Unlimited’s approach to education. He joined the first class of Knowledge Integrators, graduating in 2012 at the top of his class. Eric’s reflection on his Unlimited transformations:
I’m writing to express my gratitude for the support that the University of Waterloo has offered to the Waterloo Unlimited program over the past twelve years. It’s hard to imagine that it’s been over a decade since my first Unlimited experience, but the retrospective perspective allows me to be confident when I say that Unlimited has been a foundational part of my success since.
I had the pleasure of participating in Unlimited’s grade 10, 11, and 12 programs while I was a student at Cameron Heights in Kitchener. The program offered a taste of life at Waterloo, innumerable lessons about how to be an engaged and proactive learner, and an opportunity to explore a variety of subjects and experiences. Most importantly, it provided a welcoming community of students and staff who have remained influential in my life since.
It was through Unlimited that I decided to apply to Knowledge Integration at Waterloo, where I would go on to receive the Alumni Gold Medal when I graduated in 2012. Unlimited instilled in me a confidence in collaborating with students and faculty alike, which helped me succeed as Operations Coordinator at the Campus Response Team (2012). It urged and equipped me to tackle complex problems in interdisciplinary ways, which informed my thesis, several conference presentations, and my research since. And, perhaps most memorably, a particular Unlimited lecture on “how to learn effectively when you’re lost or overwhelmed” has challenged me to be my best in the classroom and professional relationships ever since, even when I’m grappling with new ideas and challenging concepts.
These lessons also carried me well into my graduate studies, where I’m now pursuing a PhD at Arizona State University. I’ve been honored to receive SSHRC masters and doctoral level awards, as well as a variety of other university and professional awards. The skills that allowed me to achieve these things – even as basic as effective note-taking, engaging positively in the classroom, defining research questions, and formulating problem definitions – were all first acquired at Unlimited.
Unlimited’s success in its 13 years of operation stems equally from the design of the experience and the energy and enthusiasm of the Unlimited staff and university student and faculty volunteer contributors to the program. The design was based on the four cornerstones of transdisciplinarity, intrinsic motivation, community, and self-enrichment. Programs were structured around three, four, or five day sessions (for Grades 12, 10, and 11 respectively). The days were packed with lectures, small group workshops, meals, recreation, guest speakers, evening commons, and campus exploration. Program staff lived in residence (or hotels when residence was unavailable) and shared meals with the students. Here's a typical Unlimited program schedule.
Unlike most high school enrichment experiences that are discipline specific, Unlimited was designed from the first to transcend disciplines. By drawing on the full range of disciplines that comprise the university, we help our young students make connections and explore areas of interest far beyond what their high school experience can offer. We give them a foundation that helps them understand how new disciplines emerge and where new knowledge comes from. Our themes are chosen for their intrinsic transdisciplinarity: Vision draws on optometry, psychology, computer science, engineering, English, religious studies, aboriginal studies, and more. Over the course of the week, students attend lectures (whole group sessions) from academics speaking about the theme in the context of their home discipline. Students are also able to select two or three workshops (small group seminars) to explore the theme in greater depth in areas of particular interest to them.
Working through a collaborative design challenge allows students to “think with their hands” and practice the steps of design thinking while building a strong peer community. This picture shows groups working together to design mini-putt holes using everyday materials (cardboard from the recycle bins, discarded coffee cups) and our favourite of all building materials—masking tape!
Unlimited’s focus on intrinsic motivation also distinguishes it from many alternative “advanced placement” courses. We encourage students to take the academic risks, stepping beyond their comfort zone of assured competence, by eliminating any penalty for poor performance. Real growth comes when students take on the challenges of new experiences in an environment where learning from failure is the norm. Both the student participants and the faculty volunteer contributors are engaged because they are intrinsically motivated to share and pursue knowledge for its own sake. Unlimited nurtures and rewards intrinsic motivation by offering students the autonomy, mastery, and purpose that Daniel Pink refers to in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
I have often described Waterloo Unlimited as a program designed to change the change makers, those highly engaged exceptional youth that come to us. I say we change what they know (transcending disciplines), how they know (intrinsically motivated), and who they know. Our third cornerstone, community, as all about changing who they know, introducing them to the community of scholars at the university, but building a new community of peers—their fellow Unlimited students, drawn from across Canada. For many students, Unlimited is the first time they found themselves in a real community of peers—like-minded, intrinsically motivated, highly engaged students passionate about their education. One mother, of a student in our final program this May, put it this way:
Perhaps most importantly, the existence of Waterloo Unlimited has helped our daughter believe that there really is a community out there where people just like her are doing exciting things and they will be happy to include her. This confidence that her tribe exists and she will find it has helped her weather some of the worst that she has had to endure as the resident kid geek. Middle school can be rough. Perhaps you can imagine, in addition to the impact this program has on education for your participants, the irreplaceable positive impact it has on their mental health?
Finally, our fourth cornerstone: self-enrichment, the single most important change we can offer our young students is the power to take charge of their own education. The student from our very first pilot who saw that Unlimited changed his life, was referring to the skills for self-enrichment sessions that are built into the program These include how and why there is value in learning something by heart, how to write a compelling one-pager, what to do when the lecturer is not especially engaging that will not only transform your personal experience, but also will change that of your peers, and indeed that of the lecturer. Other sessions that are regular features of an Unlimited experience include how to read an academic paper, how to ask your professor for a recommendation, how to take notes, the value of reflection, and more. By equipping our Unlimited students with these sorts of invaluable skills, typically not covered in conventional curricula, we ensure that their subsequent experience of education will always be Unlimited.
Rae Crossman, our own poet-in-residence, performing poetry in ways many high school students have never considered. Atop a desk, with a handmade paddle in hand, or wearing the boots of a man from long ago Irish conflict, Rae’s stories and performances inspire us to fall in love with poetry.
Over 13 years and 39 programs, Waterloo Unlimited has changed the lives of over 1600 high school students, hundreds of University of Waterloo students, staff, and faculty, and countless teachers and parents who have themselves been changed by the transformed young people in their lives. Unlimited has certainly changed me. It has changed my personal community of colleagues and friends, connecting me across campus far beyond the walls of my engineering background. Unlimited opened the door to an opportunity to change the shape of the university itself. When we asked ourselves what might a four year university experience, built on the cornerstones of transcending disciplines, intrinsic motivation, community and self-enrichment, look like, we were led to create the Bachelor of Knowledge Integration, an entirely new undergraduate degree program that aspires to educate the renaissance women and men of today as literate, numerate, articulate, graceful collaborators. Knowledge Integration persists as Unlimited’s legacy, educating change makers who see connections others don’t and are able to envision solutions others may not.
– Ed Jernigan
Students interested in pursuing the ethos should check out uWaterloo’s Bachelor of Knowledge Integration (KI) program. Check out the different paths that three KI students are taking in their multidisciplinary degree.
Editor's Note: In the spring of 2017, the University of Waterloo decided to de-fund the Waterloo Unlimited project in response to "changing priorities." Jernigan told A\J that he would “welcome a conversation with anyone at any university (or college) interested in creating a similar enrichment experience for prospective students.” As a long-time partner to many of Canada’s leading academic institutions, A\J would heartily recommend – and, in fact, be happy to facilitate – an exploratory conversation that could see an "Unlimited" program popping up on any campus from coast to coast to coast. If this is of interest, please drop us a note and we’ll be happy to connect dots.
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