Thursday, 20 June 2013


Wednesday June 12 was convocation day for the Faculty of Science. At two convocation ceremonies that day, almost 1,000 undergraduate and graduate Science students received their degrees. The day was full of pomp and ceremony as befits a milestone event in one’s life. The venue seats almost 2,000 people and almost every seat was taken. Excited students. Proud parents. Eager friends.

As per tradition, I had to wear my formal academic garb. In the picture below I am dressed in the colors of the University of Waterloo (Ph.D., 1986). With my beefeater hat and long flowing garb, I felt like I was a member of a medieval court. Ah, the things Deans must do to provide photo ops for proud parents.
Science Honorary degree recipient James Balog. Check out his amazing photography at
On stage, my job was to shake the hand of each graduating Science student. They enter the stage as a graduand and after shaking my hand they officially become a graduate. Over the two ceremonies, I had to congratulate roughly 500 students (many did not show up). Do you know how tiring it is to stand on stage and shake 500 hands? Further, I wanted to say something personal to teach of them, something more than just “Congratulations”. It’s easy to have original comments for the first few dozen, then it becomes tiring and I lapsed into using several stock phrases. My throat was sore by the end of the day.

As each student approached center stage, I tried to look directly into their eyes. Some students were bubbling over with excitement – after all this was the culmination of many years of hard work! Other students appeared to be absolutely terrified – as if being on stage in front of 2,000 of their peers, family and friends was a horrific ordeal. My job was to try and capture their attention, flash a broad smile, and make subtle gestures to welcome them forward for the traditional handshake. For some, I think I made a small difference in relieving the stress. For others, it remained a scary experience.

Let’s do some math:
  • Over 900 undergraduates (pretend it is 900).
  • Each student takes 40 courses in their degree program.
  • Each course has 39 hours of lectures and an average of 1.5 hours of labs per week (roughly 20 hours).
  • Homework at the rate of 3 hours for each hour of lecture. That’s the official line, if you believe it.

Grand total? 900 x 40 x (39 + 20 + 39x3) = 6.3 million hours of learning. Another way of looking at it is that each student spent an average of 62 hours studying per week for each of 8 terms (14 weeks/term with 5 courses per term). Life as a university student isn’t easy!

Science Honorary degree recipient Ian Stirling. Almost 40 years of work in the Canadian North raising awareness of the plight of polar bears.
I had an epiphany on graduation day. Over breakfast that morning I listened in on a discussion of the vast wealth that Alberta has under the ground (oil and natural gas). It was yet another debate on the pros and cons of the oil sands: does economic benefit trump environmental impact?

Later that morning, as I sat on stage staring out at several hundred students about to graduate, it occurred to me that I was looking at the real wealth of Alberta. These students were about to embark on exciting careers, careers that will help shape the economic prosperity of Edmonton, Alberta and even Canada. Who knows what these talented people will do? Start new companies? Make exciting scientific discoveries? Give back to the community? All I know today is that our graduates have an important tool in their career arsenal – a high quality University of Alberta education. What they do with it is up to them, but I’m confident this year’s graduating class will enrich our lives. Young eager minds ready to make their mark in the world is the real wealth of Alberta.

Congratulations to this year’s graduating class. You should be very proud of your accomplishments. The Faculty of Science is honored to have played an important part in your life.

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