EPCOR gives at-risk kids a taste of university

Investment in U School helps whet youngsters' appetite for higher learning

Amie Filkow - 07 March 2017

For five days last November, 22 junior high students from Edmonton's Balwin School went to university. They toured the University of Alberta campus and met faculty and students. They learned about photography, the rights of children and how much sugar is in their drinks.

The Grade 8 students were taking part in U School, a university outreach program that offers a one-week immersion on campus to socially vulnerable, Indigenous and rural students in grades 4 through 9.

A recent two-year commitment of $20,000 per year for U School from EPCOR, a UAlberta donor for close to 20 years, is a gift to hundreds of youngsters who might not have imagined university as part of their future.

The corporation, which provides electricity, clean water and wastewater services to communities in Western Canada and the Southwestern United States, is also generous with its employees' time and talents.

During Balwin's week at U School, students were scheduled to hear a presentation about why water matters delivered by Steve Craik, the quality assurance and environment director for EPCOR Water Canada.

The students expected to be bored, but a beaming Craik walked into the classroom with a variety of gadgets in tow. He spoke enthusiastically about watershed and how to clean river water. He demonstrated how a turbidity meter works. He encouraged hands-on investigation.

The kids drank it all in.

"Half of these students are either English language learners or below grade level," says Laurie Michelson, a Balwin social studies teacher who accompanied the students to U School. "If the language of instruction is too high, they give up and shut down. But Steve talked to them in a way they understood, so they stayed engaged."

Craik's water presentation was among the students' favourite parts of U School, outranked only by the photography session, says Michelson.

The learning didn't stop when the week was over. Back in class, students continued to think about water use. "We talked about how many of us left taps running while we brushed our teeth or rinsed dishes," Michelson says.

Thank-you letters written to Craik and EPCOR also demonstrated how the lesson had hit home.

"In all honesty, I wasn't very interested in water or EPCOR before­­ - all I knew was that my parents paid money for it," wrote one of the Balwin students. "But that presentation was an eye-opener. I thought a lot about how much water I was using and wasting without realization."

Michelson believes EPCOR can make a lasting impression on students attending U School. "They're building stewardship among the little ones," she says.

In 2016-17, nearly 700 youngsters attended U School. The program's base funding comes from the University of Alberta Senate and proceeds from the annual Chancellor's Cup Golf Tournament.

Gifts from donors like EPCOR are crucial to U School's success, helping provide transportation subsidies, snacks and the leather-bound journals in which students reflect on their time at U School - and, in the case of Michelson's students, continue to use daily. Funds also help support a special June convocation ceremony for all students who participated in the program during the year.

For Michelson, the change in students after they have attended U School is nothing short of amazing.

"They have goals now," she says. "These kids don't have a lot of grown-ups in their lives who are university educated, so for them to go and see that this is possible - that university is not this foreign thing, that they can do it if they put their minds to it - it's a shift in attitude.

"U School gave them hope that they can get there one day."