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Schulich Leader Scholarships are awards of $60,000 to $80,000 for students who want to study science, technology, engineering and math – the academic disciplines known as the STEM fields – at a Canadian university.AlexRaths/Getty Images/iStockphoto

How did Austin Sawyer win an $80,000 scholarship to the University of Victoria? By using the experimental method.

Over the course of a year, Mr. Sawyer tested materials to be used in oil containment booms, hoping to improve the pickup and retention of spills.

"We went to Canadian Tire and bought mini-pools and filled them with oil. We put them in the hallways of our high school and tried out different materials," Mr. Sawyer, 18, said of the work he did with classmate Vicki Kleu. The project won them a national science fair prize and helped Mr. Sawyer win one of 50 Schulich Leader Scholarships, awards of $60,000 to $80,000 for students who want to study science, technology, engineering and math – the academic disciplines known as the STEM fields – at a Canadian university.

The goal of the scholarships, announced Tuesday, is to create a network of graduates in STEM fields who can drive innovation over several decades.

"Our belief is that if you create teams and you have a few real superstars on the team, they bring up the whole team. It's like having LeBron James on your team. Great leaders do that," said David Stein, director of the Schulich Foundation, which administers the awards set up by investor and philanthropist Seymour Schulich in 2012. "As Canada evolves, we want to focus on backing students who can create new employment."

The foundation modelled the awards on the renowned Rhodes Scholarship – but structured them for a Canadian context. "With Rhodes, everyone goes to Oxford. We said we don't want to just pick four or five of the biggest universities. We want to make sure smaller schools are represented," Mr. Stein said.

This year's winners were chosen from a final group of 1,250 nominees from across the country. They are picked by their high schools before proceeding to the national round, where winners are decided by the universities to which they apply.

These are not kids who can be manufactured by ambitious helicopter parents or tiger moms. In fact, many say their parents tell them to slow down.

"Countless nights since Grade 8 I have been overworking myself," said Aishwarya Roshan, who will start a degree in science at the University of British Columbia with a $60,000 Schulich science scholarship.

Ms. Roshan, who graduated from high school with a 96-per-cent average and founded a national environmental youth group, says her high-school years were a series of early-morning study sessions and after-school activities that stretched into the night.

"From when I was growing up, I started to push myself to try different things, to find my passion," she said. "My parents didn't always see the point."

By high school, she found her stress levels were too high, so she focused on only a few extracurriculars, including Indian classical dance. She hopes to study pharmacology at UBC.

Mr. Sawyer, meanwhile, is thinking about working in the oil industry when he graduates from university. He talked to hundreds of oil company employees and executives while working on the oil boom project and has decided that the best way to influence the industry's direction is from the inside.

"It's very hard to be a kid trying to get out a prototype," he said. "I want to be the guy who goes into the oil fields and helps the environment."