Ten Peaks educating Alberta youth on energy and the environment, inspiring future innovators

Dagmar Knutson

Dagmar Knutson loves to learn — and one of her own learning epiphanies came via a casual remark from her son Aiden.

After school one day, in 2019, he declared that Canada’s oilsands industry was the “worst in the world” — the result of an in-class discussion about energy matters.

Mother-son dialogue ensued.

Knutson was less surprised about her son’s declaration than she was about how little he knew of balancing information that might have meant more fulsome discussion — like the fact the end of the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line is less than 30 minutes from their Red Deer home.

Knutson, the CFO of Red Deer-based Fusion Production Systems, was bemused that word of the oilsands sector’s advances hadn’t penetrated as far as her son’s school — smack dab in the middle of oil and gas country.

So, Knutson’s epiphany begat a monthly email on energy. Initially, the email was sent to two teachers at her son’s school. As Aiden progressed to high school, those teachers were added, too. The emails contained content and material Knutson thought might help teachers integrate perspective — and timeliness — into their classroom discussions, while simultaneously synchronizing with current curriculum.

Thus, from a concerned mother’s email chain, Ten Peaks Innovation Alliance was born.

Fast forward to Oct. 17, when nearly 650 students from grades 7 to 12 and their teachers — with hundreds more online — will gather in Lacombe in central Alberta to hear from, and engage with, a diverse array of energy sector experts. The gathering’s intent: to provide teachers and students with different perspectives on how energy systems work — and encourage them to think constructively and critically about the things they hear on both sides of the discussions.

Take David Layzell’s opening keynote. Layzell is one of Canada’s leading energy systems thinkers. He’s a key founder of Transition Accelerator — and his presentation on Canada’s hydrogen economy will frame a variety of other concurrently running conversations throughout the day.

The conference is in many ways a perfect microcosm of the diverse dialogues that are the reality of a net-zero world — all live but recorded for future reference. Students and their teachers can select from sessions. Participants will discuss energy conservation and climate change, public policy and alternative energy.

All of it is framed as a “system of systems” — in which all the moving parts must mesh and sync for progress to be made.

While Ten Peaks was an idea conceived in pre-pandemic times, it was always about bringing people together to share learnings and best practices. But its initial planned execution in 2021 ran full speed into pandemic obstacles and, as a result, the inaugural event was online. But its success ensured the 2022 edition next week would be in person — but still with an online dimension — as momentum and interest continue to build.

The “Ten-Peak” naming dynamic derives from Knutson’s passion for the outdoors, germinated and nurtured in her years growing up in a sawmill family in Drayton Valley. She still spends much time in the mountains and among the trees but believes Ten Peaks is also a great metaphor for energy dynamics — with peaks and valleys that are highs and lows, but always promising new goals and aspirations.

Knutson’s Ten Peaks journey also taught her much about the challenges teachers face when it comes to “teaching in real time” around subject matter that is itself moving at light speed. As she finessed her thinking about a learning conference, she discovered other like-minded organizations, ranging from industry groups and businesses to non-profits and post-secondary institutions.

Many of the teachers she encounters lament the lack of materials that will allow them to help students round out their perspectives. While environmentally oriented teaching material has long been available from other organizations outside the school system, there was nothing oriented to teaching and learning in a more holistic energy sense. And nothing existed that allows teachers to keep pace with the sector’s almost frenetic rate of change.

“At Ten Peaks, we’re building bridges … connecting students and teachers to the technologies and innovations that are happening in the here and now, so they can have well-rounded conversations and to help them refine their thinking on key topics.”

Knutson is no starry-eyed apologist for industry. She knows that’s not what contributes to effective learning — or career development and decision-making. She’s fashioned Ten Peaks as a framework in which oil and gas plays a part, but so do the tough dialogues around renewables, waste and decarbonization. Much of it points to a future in which better-informed citizens are key to a diverse and dynamic workforce.

“As students think about their careers and their futures, it’s important for them to understand as best they can the scope and range of opportunities to make a change and make a difference…. We want to inspire them and see where they can go.”

But Ten Peaks has evolved into much more than an annual event. It now boasts an online learning library composed of recorded sessions that are available anytime. It runs summer camps for aspiring energy entrepreneurs and is currently contemplating a monthly innovation webinar series that will feature discussions around the newest technology ventures. All of it is geared to improved learning and awareness.

Knutson is grateful that her efforts have caught the attention of key corporate supporters, whose funding dollars have helped Ten Peaks deliver a quality product. Among her sponsors are companies like Canadian Natural Resources and the Pathways Alliance, industry groups like the Society of Petroleum Engineers and Canadian Association of Energy Contractors and post-secondaries like Red Deer Polytechnic.

“It’s important for the students to have an opportunity to talk directly to the companies that are leading these conversations and initiatives … likewise, it’s important for these companies to hear directly from, and engage with, students directly … to learn and understand what it is they are thinking and what they want to know about.”

Knutson still remembers her interactions with her son’s teacher — interactions that have resulted in a solid friendship and learning partnership. During last year’s online event, the teacher projected the proceedings to 119 students all day. This year, the same teacher is bringing dozens of students to Lacombe.

“We hear such great and inspirational stories of what everyone has learned and we’re finding out that many, many students and teachers think the same way….”

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