Looking Back – Transition Overlea to MGCI

Science, Technology, Environment and Mathematics and the Transition from Overlea to Garneau

Overlea Secondary School was an active and developing institution that focused on student excellence and success. Despite vigorous activity and innovative programmes across all disciplines rumours of changes to programmes and to school personnel were emanating from the East York Board Administration. In the early 80’s the Pure Science Department was humming with activity. Mathematicians Dom DiFelice, John Kearns, Mike Orlando and others were recognized for their teaching excellence by receiving the K.D.Fryer Math award and posting high scores on the Waterloo Mathematics contests. Math camp, under the guidance of Stewart Craven, was developing enthusiastic math students. Science students were competing in physics contests under the leadership of Bob Wevers and Arthur Stinner. Chemistry teachers Clyde Chamberlain and Marty Oslinger, alias Earl and Meyer, had students in the Waterloo “Chem Ed” programme and they treated the students to explosions and dazzling chemistry during the annual Chemistry Christmas Show, which entertained students and raised money for charity. The biology team of Ron Thorpe, Kernan John, Mark Whitcombe and Paul Barrie were very busy with cat labs, audio-tutorial biology, Sheldon ecological studies, biology club trips and the Overlea greenhouse and animal room.

The East York Board was very supportive of teacher in-service and innovation. Staff regularly enrolled in conferences and professional development sessions. The Science Teachers Association of Ontario (STAO) and the Mathematics Teacher Conference annual conferences had many the Pure Science staff as participants. Ron Thorpe was sent to Boston to attend the National Association of Biology Teachers Conference in 1984. At a symposium on Life in the Universe he met one of the presenters, Dr. Lynn Margulis from Boston University (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Margulis). She was a prominent NASA scientist involved in the Viking Mission and the spouse of astronomer Carl Sagan. It was arrange that Dr. Margulis would present in Toronto for STAO 84 on the topic of Early Life. At STAO she encouraged Ron Thorpe to apply to NASA’s Planetary Biology Intern Program where 10 participants from the USA and foreign countries with science backgrounds work with NASA scientists on interdisciplinary science research for 10 weeks at a NASA facility. Dick Dodds, Director at East York, and Dr. Tuzo Wilson, Director of the Ontario Science Centre wrote letters of endorsement.

Ron Thorpe was the first educator to be selected and was posted to work with Dr. Lynn Bondurant at the NASA Lewis in Ohio (now Glenn Research Centre). They developed a successful programme “NASA Biology on Earth and in Space” for secondary science teachers. Now you can see where the space element comes in to the Overlea/ Marc Garneau equation. The Senior Administration at the East York Board were embarking on a new initiative driven by Director Dick Dodds. He proposed that the three secondary schools and the Adult Learning Centre should have a focus based, in part, on school expertise and student need.

In the early 1980’s Overlea Secondary School was thriving from the inside but from the outside world it did not enjoy a positive reputation. The presence of the Basic level programme in the school gave a false impression of academic inferiority. Many students were reluctant to attend and many teachers were reluctant to teach at the school despite the impressive work by staff and students.  As a result, the school population was decreasing to the point where there were suggestions the school may have to close or be taken over by the separate school board.

The teachers and administrators at Overlea and the trustees and senior staff of the East York Board were well aware of the dedicated and excellent work of the teachers and the success of the graduating students and were determined to “right a wrong”!  A “ways and means” committee, made up of teachers and school and senior administrators was struck and chaired by the Director of Education, with the challenge of finding ways and means to improve the unfair reputation of Overlea.  The committee members were well aware of the mammoth task of trying to change the reputation of a school. During the committee’s deliberations it was felt that changing the programme emphasis, while retaining the current programming, was necessary.  It was decided to first, stress mathematics, science and computer science; second, invite the private sector involvement; and third, market the excellence of these priorities.  At the same time, the Director was sitting on a Provincial Ministry of Labour Committee and discovered there were 15,000 jobs in the aerospace industry in the Greater Toronto Area but no secondary school was preparing students for this area of work.

The Committee decided to add space technology to the three areas of specialty and the work began.  Programme development was delegated to Ron Thorpe and Tony Flora who became “Program Facilitators”. Principal Bob Hendershot selected staff that were totally committed to the excellence of specialized programmes and creativity took over.  The school was successful in attracting many high profile companies to be directly involved in designing programmes and donating staff time and equipment to the school. They included: Spar Aerospace, UNISYS Computers, The Watcom Group and the Institute for Space and Terrestrial Science at York University. This was the first multi-partnership programme between a school and the business/university community. Spar immediately donated a satellite dish to the school that remains in place over 30 years later. Once the programming was in place, discussion ensued about changing the name of the school to better describe the program priorities.

As a result Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut in space, was approached by the Director of Education and readily agreed to allowing his name to be attached to the school.  Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute (MGCI) was born in 1987 (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Garneau_Collegiate_Institute).  It was interesting to note how committed Dr. Garneau was to the school by spending enormous amounts of time and energy to encouraging students and staff.  The school thrived and the enrolment soared. People were proud to teach at MGCI and both the students and the school gained worldwide reputations.

To steer programming and innovation an Advisory Board was established and included: East York Director, Dick Dodds; MGCI Principal, Bob Hendershot; NRC Astronaut, Dr. Marc Garneau; Spar Vice President, Chris Trump; NASA’s leading educator, Dr. Lynn Bondurant; Watcom President, Ian McPhee; OISE Professor, Dr. Ian Winchester; UNISYS Vice President, Ian Montgomery; York University Associate Dean of Science, Dr. Robert Webb; Ontario Science Centre Chief Scientist, George Vanderkuur; University of Waterloo Assistant Dean of Mathematics, Ron Dunkley and Science Journalist Lydia Dotto. The Board challenged staff and students to be creative; to suggest projects, which would enrich the curriculum, and to identify useful resources for programs and extra-curricular activities.

The results were so impressive that the school gained a national and international reputation for excellence and innovation. Some of the many benefits include: a science journalism course taught by Lydia Dotto; a specialized Mathematics, Science and Technology program (TOPS) was designed to attract the best and brightest students (see topsprogram.ca); TechLab 2000, a computer-based design and technology program including SmartLab a series of workstations/islands with integrated system of equipment, computer-mediated instruction and sequenced modular activities (see http://www.creativelearningsystems.com/); a marketing initiative including publication of the “Capsule” highlighting program initiatives and student activities; the Garneau Science Experiment flown by NASA and recorded by TVOntario that was the impetus for a new student group called “SEDS”, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space; and, a large integrated UNISYS computer system with 10 servers and 250 workstations which allowed students to access their files from anywhere in the building. This was managed by two technologically adept administrators/teacher John Craig and Sandy Ogden who maintained their full-time teaching load. As with all new department initiatives the computer science department received comprehensive and ongoing support for hardware installation and software development from UNISYS and Watcom partners and the Board. To further expand the experience for students, the Computer Science department worked with the Co-op department to create a position that placed a co-op student as a part-time administrator managing the network.

After returning from NASA Lewis Ron Thorpe thought that the NASA Teacher Resource Centers were an excellent resource for secondary teachers of mathematics, science and technology and for elementary teachers looking to incorporate space into their curriculum. No resource-based space program or facility for teachers existed in Ontario in 1985. He took the idea to Tuzo Wilson at the Ontario Science Centre without success but Director Dick Dodds was enthusiastic. With the help of Marc Garneau and NASA’s Lynn Bondurant the Space Resource Centre was created at the school as an adjunct to the Audio Visual Department. It’s role was primarily to support the teachers through the transition period as they introduced the space technology emphasis to the curriculum. The Advisory Board strongly supported the Centre and it was expanded by a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Education to serve teachers in Ontario. The Centre became the Canadian Space Resource Centre (CSRC) in 1987. After the schools major renovation in 1996 the CSRC was given a new expanded location on the first floor of MGCI. Added was an extensive resource base, new traveling kits and an internet presence (see HYPERLINK “http://www.spacenet.on.ca/” http://www.spacenet.on.ca/ and HYPERLINK “https://www.facebook.com/…/Canadian-Space-Resource-Centre” https://www.facebook.com/…/Canadian-Space-Resource-Centre. (CSRC). In the mid 1990’s the CSRC became an integral part of the Canadian Space Agency Education Resource Centre network and was mandated to serve all of Ontario. Currently the Centre primarily serves teachers and students in the Toronto District School Board and is managed by Steven Lang with help from Ron Thorpe.

Since the inception of MGCI, the TOPS program, the CSRC and other educational initiatives, the school has grown from 850 students in 1984 to 1900 students in 2014. The original open plan that was created in 1972 was changed by initially creating many walls and small rooms. Then in 1996 a major structural project was completed that renovated existing facilities and added more classrooms, science laboratories, a library and offices housed in an extension to accommodate the rising population of students. From its inception Overlea, now Garneau, has been an innovative educational experiment and institution that pushed the boundaries for the unique and diverse community it serves. Overlea and Marc Garneau will continue to thrive and boldly go where no school has gone.

R.A. Dodds/ R.C.Thorpe 2015