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Festival SPURS high schoolers to experience university

Photo of: Dr. Carolyn Harris lecturing highschoolers

Dr. Carolyn Harris lecturing to a group of high school students. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Lecturing about such topics as exo-planets, the Magna Carta, ethics and Italian cuisine, a dozen University of Toronto professors offered 94 Toronto high school students a taste of university life as part of the SPUR Festival’s Young Scholars program.

The SPUR Festival is produced by the Literary Review of Canada to encourage Canadians to have a national conversation on politics, art and ideas. The SPUR Young Scholars program began in 2013 as a way to engage the citizens who will lead Canada into the future.

“I don’t want my country to descend into public discourse that is divisive,” said Helen Walsh, a U of T alumna who is director of the SPUR Festival and co-publisher of the Literary Review of Canada. “It led me to thinking about how to encourage debate in communities and get a national conversation started.”

Engagement among high school students translated to involving them in interesting discussions while experiencing a day on a university campus. Working together with staff at University College, the SPUR team created an opportunity for the students to choose four of 12 hour-long university lectures, held at various locations around campus. Professors from the Faculty of Arts & Science, the Rotman School of Management and U of T’s colleges volunteered their time and expertise, along with classroom space, and the opportunity to experience university life took shape.

“Supporting and hosting the Spur Young Scholars Day is important to University College because we share Spur’s commitment to public dialogue on important ideas,” said Professor John Marshall, vice-principal of University College, who welcomed the participants to campus. “The Young Scholars day treats high school students as the real thinkers they are and it cultivates their growth as participants in Canada’s most important public conversations.”

The students, drawn from four area Catholic high schools, one public high school and a private school, were eager participants in the courses they attended. Hands waved in the air and discussion was lively.

“The professors were very taken by how engaged the kids are,” said Michael Booth, who organized the day on behalf of the Literary Review of Canada. “I don’t think they have the fear that first-year university students have in the presence of extraordinary faculty.”

The courses offered turned out to be both interesting and relevant to some of the work the students were doing in their high school classes.

Caitlin Strange, a Grade 11 student from Michael Power-St. Joseph High School in Etobicoke, signed up for The Looting and Destruction of Antiquities: Who Owns the Past? with Professor Justin Jennings, an archeologist.

“I’m taking ancient history and we talked about looting antiquities in our last unit, so I thought it would be a great tie-in,” Strange said.

The high school teachers in attendance were as enthusiastic as the students.

“This is a great opportunity for our Grade 11s to see what the opportunities are for courses in areas such as politics, the arts and ideas,” said Leanna Cariati, a teacher at St. Joseph’s College. “The offerings are so vast; there is a subject that will interest every one of them.

“Some of them are debating whether to go to U of T, so this is an opportunity for them to make connections.”