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High school students explore engineering

DEEP Summer Academy celebrates a decade

Chae Kyung Lim, a grade 11 student, travelled from Korea to take part in DEEP (Photo by Richard Kwan)

It's the Da Vinci Engineering Enrichment Program Summer Academy but everyone calls it DEEP - and for the 10th straight year, it's welcoming ambitious high school students from across Canada and around the world to U of T.

Running for four weeks in July, the camp offers teens the chance to go deeper into their high school curriculum - giving them the opportunity to learn fundamental math and science skills typically mastered by first and second year university students.

The past decade has seen the Academy undergo tremendous transformation.

"We've gone from being just a day program where we saw a couple hundred students to being a residence program where we're seeing over a thousand students from around the world," says Dawn Britton, associate director of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering's Outreach Office.

The Academy's sessions, targeting everything from design to enzyme digestion to fluorescent imaging, are designed and led by U of T students. Graduate students take areas of their research and pare the subject down to foundational skills that help prepare students for future studies, while undergraduate students gain invaluable experience as camp counselors who assist the running of the courses.

"We have really incredible instructors, phenomenal students," says Britton. 

Esther Lau, a co-instructor on a course on stem cells, obtained her MASc from IBBME in Biomedical Engineering and is now in her second year of medical school. She says DEEP's impact on students ripples out over the years.

"The first year they started running the program I remember being a student of DEEP, and what I was able to get out of it.  As a grad student I'm able to come full circle and be in a teaching role."

Lau and her co-instructor, David Lee—a PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering at IBBME—have been teaching grade 11 and 12 students how to stain for stem cells, distinguish stem cells from differentiated cells, and change cell culture's media for the past two years.

It's an opportunity worth leaving home for - even if it means travelling across the world.

"It takes twelve hours to get from Korea to here," says Chae Kyung Lim, a grade 11 student who made that journey to be a part of the DEEP experience.  "But I love the very high level [of teaching]."

The hands-on laboratory experience and cool equipment is a major draw for many of the camp's participants, as well.  Getting to manipulate the state-of-the-art microscopes is exciting, as are exercises such as how to change the "food" for cell cultures inside a massive bio-safety cabinet that continuously circulates air in the newly renovated, top-of-the-line IBBME undergraduate teaching lab.

"As undergraduate students, both Esther and I used this teaching lab," recalls Lee. "It's amazing how neat, advanced, and really well-equipped the lab is now.  It screams out for science." 

Adam Kuzminski, an 11th grader from Loyola High School in Mississauga, agrees that getting to use the equipment is a huge plus, and an experience he doesn’t get as part of his school's laboratory work.

"Not like this, not in this detail," he says.

Another returning DEEP instructor, Nika Shakiba, PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at IBBME, is one of the downtown campus's coordinators for "Let's Talk Science," a national volunteer outreach program that works to help students of all ages participate more fully in the sciences.

"These are foundational skills that every undergraduate needs," she says. Her lab is buzzing with grade 9 and 10 students as she calmly goes over the instructions for the day's topic: cell staining.

One at a time, Shakiba walks students through the process of staining cells with a fluorescent marker that will allow the cell's properties to be seen under a microscope.

John Park flew all the way from Vancouver for exactly this kind of training.  He was told about the camp by his teacher, he says, but his decision to attend was simple.

"I saw robotics and medicine in the brochure." 

The DEEP program runs through July 27th and the Junior DEEP program, which targets kids from grades 5 through 8, kicks off on August 6th.