Our alternative study tour to the University of Calgary literally took us to new heights as we arrived late Friday night to see the vibrant and beautiful city fringed by the Rockies. Some of us went up to Banff and Canmore to do grizzly bear hunting over the weekend and see the extravagant Chateau Louise above the azure lake (it really is very blue). We didn’t see a grizzly but we enjoyed elk singing and mountain sheep munching, and the most amazing scenery.

On to the actual campus on Monday, we discovered that Calgary sits on a confluence of the Bow River and the Elbow River, on the site of the Blackfoot territories. It’s also not far from the business hub of the city, made prosperous by the oil industry, and renowned for its annual ‘Stampede’, an annual gathering of rodeo enthusiasts who come from all over the world. Calgary boasts the youngest population of any Canadian city, and also the most educated.

The study tour started off with a phenomenal talk by Diane Kenyon, VP for University Relations and Kim Lawrence, Associate Vice-President, Marketing, showcasing their strategy and communications key performance indicators.  We heard about their recent $44million donation that will help take them to the next level to being in the top 5 research universities in Canada by 2022. As they are already number 6, this seems not too hard a goal! We liked Diane’s pragmatism: “you can make any structure work as long as people collaborate”. She gives her projects names to ensure they are time-bound projects with goals, rather than amorphous aspirations. Who wouldn’t want to join Project Seashell?

Kim Lawrence then took over the batten to talk about civic engagement and the opportunity of having so many media channels that the University’s own media voice is now far more powerful than many individual news sites. Kim posed some amazing questions, such as “Should we be our own Fifth Estate?”, “What’s our Special Sauce?” and “How do we penetrate the clutter?” There just wasn’t time to answer or take in all the outstandingly satisfying strategic gems scattered before us.

We were then hurled into the mind of Dr Bryant, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reserves. A man resembling a Texan Dr Who. We learnt about new technologies to extract oil more cleanly, how rust can generate heat, and how nanoparticles stick to tumours, transport bitumen and transfer electrons. Added together this meant that it was a very good job I gave up A level Physics and that Calgary really is at the forefront of clean power and oil extraction.

Dr John Brown followed Dean of Environmental Design, and a phenomenal architect, who was frustrated with the lack of planning for older and sick people. We were knocked out of complacency by his statistics that every minute someone turns 70 in America, and all of us are soon going to be ‘ripe bananas’ finding modern architectural design pretty unfit for purpose. He has created an award-winning mobile home concept, a stylish unit that could be lifted onto the back of a normal home, and used for end of life care. People can remain close to their family without going to the expense of making a special extension or being forced out to an expensive nursing home.

We then had an afternoon devoted to progress in biological sciences and chronic diseases, where our brains were stretched with whizzy cell pictures. A visit to Health Science Building introduced us to a leading body simulation dummy, used to train students with injections and complex intubations, as well as other technologies to track eye movements to see how boring or not the teaching is! There was also state of the art software to aggregate learnings on every possible hospital illness across the world for easier diagnosis. There were some very obscure ones that probably kills the need for the expertise of “Dr House”, but also some delightfully named obscurities like Christmas tree injuries.

The evening brought extravagant delights with a special reception at the stunning Glenbow Museum. Professor Aritha van Herk, famous Canadian historian and institutional legend, introduced us to some of the more colourful Calgary characters commemorated in the gallery which she herself curated. We were then privileged to dine with Dr Elizabeth Cannon, the President of Calgary, who invited us to share a Canadian gourmet feast along with her future vision for the university.  We could now both taste and answer Kim’s earlier question about Calgary’s Special sauce!

The second day didn’t quite go to plan, as we woke to 25 cm of snow! Bearing in mind this was October, people were all rather unprepared, apart from the indefatigable Winnie Lowe who has a hotline to every taxi driver in the city! Our study tour group couldn’t believe our luck to enjoy the site of snow ploughs in Calgary and also try out our specially branded Calgary gloves (see photo!). We are still conducting an ongoing investigation into who threw the first snowball at Tracy. And just because she’s called Chalk is no excuse, Alan!

Snow shoes off, we returned to the classroom, with a session on How to Teach and Learn, hosted by two amazingly insightful teachers from Calgary’s College of Discovery, Creativity and Innovation, Drs Leslie Reid and Robin Mueller.  In a nutshell – teachers must engage, use inquiry-based learning, get students to lead community discussions on big questions over joint dinners, and design projects that lead to tangible outcomes.

The final farewells were brief as everyone rushed to sort delayed flights and unforeseen travel. However, we all owe a huge debt of thanks to Diane, Kim and Winne Lowe for the most excellent study tour, logistics and snow. Especially the snow! Calgary’s academics will be imprinted on our minds for their dynamism, vision and ability to live the Calgary motto and look ‘high’.


Louise Simpson