Vancouver student off to UBC at 15

Teens benefit from advanced program

In September, Rex Chen will reach two milestones. He’ll enroll as a university student. And he’ll turn 15.

Chen is one of 38 students enrolled in University Transition Program located at UBC. He and other academically gifted students in the Transition Program complete high school in two years.

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In January, Chen saw a paper he wrote about his science project published in Harvard’s Journal of Emerging Investigators for middle and high school scientists. For his class science project that won a silver medal at the Greater Vancouver Regional Science Fair, Chen designed a solar-powered desalination plant that could also serve as a waste-water facility. Chen’s father, a physics professor in Taiwan, discovered the journal and encouraged him to submit a paper.

Dr. Lucy Shepelev, physics and math teacher at the Transition Program, tasked Chen and his physics classmates to choose a scientific paper on a topic they didn’t understand and to find a professor at UBC to participate in their presentation.

“Networking is important,” said Chen, who spoke to the Courier with his coat zipped to his chin, ready to bike the sea wall around Stanley Park with his recreation class after his interview Friday.

Chen said recreation class offers needed stress relief from his studies.

Absent from the Transition Program are physical education, drama, art and music courses. But a student was leaning on a locker, strumming an acoustic guitar in the entrance to the Transition Program’s second-floor space in a building surrounded by tall trees on West Mall at UBC when the Courier visited.

The Vancouver School Board and UBC initiated the University Transition Program in 1993. It’s funded by the Ministry of Education as a Provincial Resource Program and half of the students accepted are from outside Vancouver.

Transition Program students are exposed to rigorous curriculum, career exploration and a culture of scholarship excellence.

“Typical applicants are within the ages of 13 and 15, currently completing Grades 7, 8, or 9, and achieving beyond the 99th percentile in standardized tests in mathematics, reading, writing, and reasoning/problem solving,” reads a description on the VSB’s website.

Transition Program students work in university labs and are expected to complete lab work to university standards.

They also venture out on multiple excursions. Transition Program students saw the Dalai Lama speak at the Chan Centre in November and heard anthropologist Wade Davis speak about sustainability in northern B.C. They hiked the West Coast Trail, spent a week in Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and last November celebrated Remembrance Day in Ottawa.

“Travel, it’s very important for maturity,” Shepelev said. “They’re going to get the marks, it’s not a worry.”

The Transition Program aims to nurture collaboration among and social responsibility in its students. Chen volunteered at the Vancouver Aquarium last summer. He has been selected as one of four high school fellows to complete a six-week research stint at  TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics at UBC, this summer.

Chen is proudest of surviving the intense Transition Program, of seeing his paper published and of starting his own robotics club.

Chen felt socially isolated when he attended middle school in Coquitlam. At the Transition Program, he interacts with likeminded peers.

Shepelev says teens in the Transition Program judge each other on their knowledge and interests, “not how much time you spend playing videogames.”

The Transition Program celebrated its 20th reunion last month with members of its first graduating class of 1995 attending. Chen said meeting alumni was inspirational.

“Alumni include the head of Microsoft’s Extreme Programming division, a 20-year-old entrepreneur generating millions of venture capital for innovations in electronic communications, and a young Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UBC with a doctorate in Classics from Oxford,” reads a VSB news article from November 2014.

Chen is interested in studying computer science, perhaps to study biological data through bioinformatics. He’s also keen on paleontology.

“Most people lose their passion for dinosaurs by this age,” he said. Not him.

The top male student in his year, Chen is concerned too many educational programs encourage students to be average. He wants programs to help students reach their full potential.

“Ready to explore all that they are.”


This story has been modified since it was first posted.

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