Find out how this pioneering professor’s belief in an unlimited education is shaping our brightest minds.

Ed Jernigan molding young minds.

As someone who is a former chair of the Department of Systems Design Engineering (SYDE) at the University of Waterloo, you wouldn't think that Ed Jernigan would get the math wrong on an anniversary.

“When my wife and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary, she said, no, no, no, you only get credit for 38 years, because for 28 months you’ve been living with those kids,” Jernigan explains. “Those kids” Jernigan’s wife is referring to, are thousands of the brightest and most motivated the country has to offer.

As the progenitor of the Department of Knowledge Integration (KI), Waterloo Unlimited, as well as serving as Program Director of the Shad Valley enrichment program, Jernigan has made it his life’s work to find our brightest youth and help them shine even brighter through interdisciplinary learning.

Ed’s own journey in interdisciplinary studies stretches into his youth, and in particular, his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Beyond his core engineering courses, Jernigan was interested in a host of classes across disciplines. “I remember Revolution, War, and Totalitarianism with Noam Chomsky. That was in 1968,” Jernigan says with a slightly mischievous grin.

Jernigan left MIT with an appreciation for learning that extended beyond academia’s traditional silos, and in 1976 he arrived at the University of Waterloo to join its engineering faculty’s most transdisciplinary unit, SYDE.

However, as broad as SYDE was for an Engineering department, it still didn’t completely satisfy Jernigan’s creative side. In 1984 he joined Shad Valley, a fledgling national enrichment program, as a math teacher, and eventually became its longest-serving program director at 26 years.

Though not officially part of the University of Waterloo, Jernigan’s involvement in Shad functioned as a de facto recruitment tool for attracting the brightest and most well-rounded students to Waterloo – something that didn’t escape the Provost at the time. A meeting between the Provost and Jernigan was arranged.

“Ed, you’ve given me an opening. I have been wondering what to do with you,” recounts Jernigan, who seems to remember the conversation verbatim. “Would you champion a new kind of enrichment program for the university, like Shad, but with a broader spectrum of students, and not just focused on technology?”

Jernigan agreed, but he didn’t want to run a shameless recruiting farm. “They are very bright, they’ll see through it,” he says. And he didn’t want to simply ape existing programs at places like Harvard. He wanted to do better. He wanted a total immersion where high school students live and work with actual university faculty. The Provost agreed, and Waterloo Unlimited, a unique enrichment opportunity for high school students in grades 10, 11, and 12, was born.

Find out more about Waterloo Unlimited programs:

To hash out the details of the program, Jernigan invited his Shad team to a remote cabin in Wisconsin.

“We don’t know what the disciplines are going to be five years from now, because they haven’t been invented yet,” he says. “We wanted to figure out a way to give kids an enrichment experience that transcends the disciplines of the day” 

They determined the best way to achieve this was to simply choose themes so broad that they slice through all disciplinary boundaries, and in 2004 when the first cohort of selected high school students arrived for the week-long Waterloo Unlimited program they were given their theme: vision.

“What is vision?” Jernigan asks rhetorically. “You can talk to a poet and they’ll talk about vision, you can talk to an optometrist and talk about vision. A geographer will talk about remote sensing.”

The choice of an expansive theme also had a positive impact on the faculty members Jernigan had enlisted to instruct the students. “I’d been teaching at UWaterloo so long I knew which faculty members would be the best people to help kids explore any subject,” Jernigan says, adding, “these people had been on campus for 20 years but had never met before. It occurred to me at that point that Waterloo Unlimited would not only provide enrichment to high school students, it was going to enrich university faculty. It was going to shake up the structure of the university.”

Waterloo Unlimited proved just as thrilling for the students who participated. Beyond the more traditional academic exercises, students learn critical life skills as well. “They learn how to learn something by heart, how to enhance their own creativity, how to think critically, how to write a killer one pager, how to introduce themselves professionally.”

“We don’t want to give out marks, because we want kids to step outside of their comfort zone and take risks,” Jernigan explains. “This changes lives.”