05/02/2012 02:36 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Let's Do More for the Bright Minds of Tomorrow, Today

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The knowledge economy is alive and well, not to mention thriving, in our country's high schools!

This May, I'll have the opportunity to watch 18 of Canada's best and brightest high school students compete against more than 1500 students from over 65 countries for more than $4 millon in prizes and scholarships at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Pittsburgh.

The young people that comprise Team Canada-ISEF are incredible and, I don't mind telling you, more than just a little awe-inspiring. Their research has the potential to enhance fuel cell technology, improve bike helmet performance, and tackle cystic fibrosis.

When you meet these bright young students, the first impression is "wow, they're pretty normal teenagers". That impression doesn't last long. The minute they begin to describe their research, my mind reels as I try to keep up with each project's premise and findings. These are incredibly bright young people who show tremendous promise for the future development of Canada's knowledge workforce.

It's a little overwhelming for us mere mortals.

Many students head into ISEF with patent-pending discoveries, and some of the past Team Canada-ISEF members have seen their projects turn into multi-million dollar ideas supported by private investors. We're more than just a little proud to tout Kobo Inc. CEO Michael Serbinis, and Uno inventor Ben Gulak amongst the alumni of Team Canada-ISEF.

We all know that the world is moving towards a knowledge-based economy, and there's been no shortage of research showing Canada needs to do more to prepare the workforce of this new generation by fostering opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship.

An aging and shrinking workforce, uncertain economic times forcing businesses to do more with less, and increased competition is driving us to get serious about boosting productivity. This means taking further steps away from our "old world" economic roots, and embracing investments in science and technology to ensure we keep pace in the new world.

The Information and Communications Technology Council suggests that Canada will need to fill 106,000 positions in the information and technology sector over the next five years, yet enrolments aren't rising to meet this need. And while knowledge workers now represent 30 per cent of Canada's workforce, evidence shows we need to do more to attract, and retain the best and brightest out there. Far too many promising young minds leave to pursue education, and opportunities outside our borders. If we're to succeed in the economy of the future, these trends need to reverse themselves, and we need to help.

We need to start earlier to provide future innovators with opportunities (like we're doing with ISEF) to tackle challenging scientific questions and, using authentic research, create solutions today for the problems of tomorrow.

We need to ask questions. Are we doing all we can, collectively, to keep these bright minds in Canada, or are they going to get lured away by larger research dollars, scholarships, and post-graduate opportunities south of the border, or overseas? Are we losing out in the global competition for intellectual capital?

How do we further foster innovation, while keeping some of these incredibly bright young people local?

These students give me hope... Hope for the promise of innovation, scientific achievement, and curiosity that lead to breakthroughs of epic proportion.