They’re clearly too young to be post-secondary students, but the halls, green spaces and athletic areas of Brock University are filled with energetic youths wearing brightly coloured T-shirts.
Brock Youth University is a wide-ranging program that brings thousands of young people onto campus throughout the year. They’re taught life skills, they’re challenged to get out of their comfort zone, and they learn about the value of lifelong learning.
But mostly, they’re having fun while learning about post-secondary education and life.
“We need to break down the barriers to education, and we’re recognizing the importance of starting very young. Most kids start making their decisions on post-secondary prior to Grade 9, and soft skills development must start at a young age,” said Kate Cassidy, Director, Brock Youth University & Community Learning at Brock.
Those ‘soft skills’ are a big focus for Brock Youth University.
“Employers are saying the soft skills are what really matter to them right now. That’s where the skill gap is,” she said. “These are really just foundational skills — self awareness, communication skills, problem solving and interpersonal skills. Developing these skills doesn’t start at 18, it starts when they’re much younger.”
Those soft skills are also what many schools are looking for.
“We were looking for a different experience. A lot of these kids are very academic and need to have some fun experiences,” said Heather Purcell, the vice-principal at Castlemore Public School in Markham, an elementary school with some of the highest standardized test scores in the province. Instead of the usual Grade 8 trip to Montreal, Purcell and teacher Karen Styles decided on an overnight camp at Brock.
“Our kids are under a lot of pressure and we needed them to learn life skills, not academic skills,” said Styles. “They found the activities really fun and the kids said they were really bonding.”
Cassidy is expecting a record-high of nearly 6,000 youths from Grade 2 to Grade 10 to come to the University this summer in a variety of Brock Youth University programs.
The activities and camp themes vary widely from Zombie biology to 3D design to leadership.
But the overarching focus this year remains on those transferable skills.
“Research is showing that key soft skills and dispositions are malleable and can grow throughout a lifetime. The research also emphasizes the importance of developing these skills early,” said Cassidy.
She said even while learning about science, for example, the instructors are helping students to focus on gaining those transferrable skills.
“They might be working in a science lab, but for us it isn’t about the science, it’s about developing the interpersonal skills that will translate to positive outcomes down the line.”