Skip to content

Opinion: Professor seeds fresh approach to learning with STEM high school

Mike Gelbart has made what many would consider a high-risk, mid-career, head-scratching move. He, of course, sees it differently. He, at this stage, sees it correctly, too.
Students in classroom
Mike Gelbart took a leave from the university to create a school he believes can impart not only knowledge but self-knowledge in its students

Mike Gelbart has made what many would consider a high-risk, mid-career, head-scratching move. He, of course, sees it differently. He, at this stage, sees it correctly, too.

Gelbart has walked away from a tenured associate professor of teaching role in the computer science department at the University of British Columbia – arguably as good as it gets in his cohort in the academy, a leading-edge program at a Tier One institution – to launch a modest high school ultimately with immodest ambition.

VISST, the Vancouver Independent School for Science and Technology, opened in September with 16 students – eight girls, eight boys – in Grades 8 and 9. It will take them and others into Grades 10, 11 and 12 in the years ahead in an experiential, highly conceptual, but clearly applied form of learning as the city’s only dedicated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) high school. Gelbart is both a principal in founding and a principal in operating.

His idea had been percolating for nearly a decade, owing in part to what he was inheriting in the classroom from schools he felt hadn’t adequately prepared students and a system that had ceased its honours programs, and he buckled down on it in early 2019. 

He took a leave from the university (and has submitted his resignation for year’s end, so there is no turning back) to create a school he believes can impart not only knowledge but self-knowledge in its students. He and partner Shaun Olafson, who founded a successful early-childhood program in Vancouver derived from the Montessori and Reggio practices, have eschewed salaries for the time being to pursue their vision. They hope not to need a 10-figure runway – “time will tell,” Gelbart says – but early indications are they won’t.

The province helped shape the framework they could then adapt.

A $25,000 donation from Teck Resources for innovative technology equipment also helped. In its first year there are four staff, three of them teaching (Gelbart, science teacher Paloma Corvalan and humanities teacher Linda Edworthy).

Even at their young age, students are treated as a business would respect its best customers, so they understand why they’re being taught what they’re being taught, how it might apply in their lives to help them solve real-world problems. It is a world somewhat removed from hundreds of tests and homework assignments, but it still carries the gravitas of a curriculum that meets and exceeds standards – just on a different path. 

Students carry responsibilities in the school, organizing some learning opportunities by reaching into the community, keeping the 5,500-square-foot facility clean, watering the plants and so on. It carries a communal vibe but also confers a leadership role across functions.

There is another important distinction that schools ought to have learned generations ago with young people, education outcomes and their biorhythms: Classes start at 10 a.m.

It is, as Gelbart puts it, a “more transparent” education in which parents and students are truer partners. Very interestingly, that transparency extends into its approach on tuition and the school’s overall business model. 

For instance, where some independent schools encourage applications that require income information, only to turn down (and discourage) students from lower-income families due to limited funds, VISST accepts a student before understanding a family’s means.

Parents can calculate online what VISST would charge based on family income and net worth. It ranges anywhere from zero to $23,400. (For those with greater income and holdings, tuition is based on a formula of 6.5 per cent of gross family income above $40,000 and 0.6 per cent of net worth of assets individually worth at least $20,000 and totalling more than $200,000, to a maximum $23,400.) The school aims for per-student revenue of about $16,000, which covers most of the $18,000 in expenses. The province provides $3,300 per domestic student. 

Rachel Rose has a 14-year-old son at VISST. The attraction for her family was a school “where gifted children could work at their full capacity and not be held back by rigid bureaucratic requirements” and “where various kinds of intelligence and personality (introverts, extroverts) were equally welcome.

“We also were looking for an independent school that was open to families from a wide range of income brackets, not just the affluent.”

She says her son never truly engaged in school – smart, but putting in time, never enthusiastic. “To see this emerge for the first time in his 14 years is truly wonderful,” she reports.

The literature has been clear: For students of all ages, the pandemic has proven to be a speed bump impeding their successes. The amount of “missed learning” from remote education and the on-and-off classroom restrictions have made for a difficult two years. 

Education in the coronavirus has compounded what were already serious concerns about the financial state and pedagogical experience of our public elementary and secondary school system in providing a competitive learning experience. The panic in Ontario over keeping schools open after such tumult, and the willingness of the Doug Ford government to invoke the constitutional notwithstanding clause on its labour dispute pre-emptively to do so, should suggest public concerns leave little margin for further disruption. These concerns have noteworthy effects on learning in the strategically significant fields for our country of mathematics and science, on the underrepresentation in these faculties of young women, with a particular blow to students in lower-income families. Canada has challenges across these metrics, and no matter how we pride ourselves on good and free public education, independent schools will have an important place – especially if, like VISST, their values consciously engage those needs. 

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.