Students love Leonardo institute

October 06, 2005, vol. 34, no. 3
By Barry Shell

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The first Leonardo Summer Institute is over and the results are in. The students loved it. The innovative series of seminars for doctoral candidates in applied sciences exceeded expectations.

Brian Lewis, dean of applied sciences, established the series out of a desire to increase graduates' breadth of knowledge.

“Our students need to see the wider picture,” says Adam Holbrook, associate director of the centre for policy research on science and technology, who was charged with organizing the summer institute. “Not only do they know little about the outside world, they don't even know each other.” Resource and engineering management students and kinesiology students rarely see their engineering and computing counterparts. Communication students almost never make the trek over to the applied sciences building.

“Leonardo da Vinci incarnates, for me, the ideal of scientific engagement and leadership. He made connections, crossed disciplines, and this is what we are trying to do in SFU applied sciences today,” says Lewis. Holbrook adds, “We want our PhDs to be sensitive to the social and political ramifications of what they are doing.”

The 11 charter students exemplified the goals of the program. They included a businessman, an artist, an economist, an orchestra conductor, a criminologist, and a Palestinian/Israeli summer youth camp counsellor. Nearly all were adults who had returned to academia to obtain a doctorate after many years in the workforce. Most were not native-born Canadians. They hailed from far-off countries that include Poland, Bangladesh, Colombia, Yugoslavia, China and Iran.

Robert Sobot, who spent five years at PMC Sierra designing microchips before returning to SFU in 2001 for his PhD says, “I've met a lot of interesting people in my life, but the Leonardo seminar group was the most interesting.”

As a result of his experience, Sobot is now teaming up with participant David Botta to create a 3D visualization system for microchip design.

Leonardo seminar series students were involved in program planning, suggesting some workshop topics, readings and field trips. These included visits to TRIUMF, the NRC Fuel Cell Institute, and trips to Kananaskis, Bowen Island and MIT. They also visited each other's labs at SFU.

“I liked just knowing what research was going on at SFU,” says Mónica Salazar.

The group would sit up until 3 a.m. in places like the lodge at Kananaskis, debating social class structure, genetic engineering, or environmental issues. “It was not a fight of ideas,” says Sobot. “It was a unique opportunity to hear points of view and opinions expressed eloquently by peers.”

“Our goal with Leonardo,” says Lewis, “is to produce engineers and applied scientists who are broad thinkers who can become the future leaders of technological change.”

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