People in Profile

Said El Mejdani

Said is a teacher inspiring his students to find success at any age and stage in life. 

“We started our tech program with very little – a zero dollar budget and four broken computers we fixed with parts salvaged from a dumpster,” Said said, speaking to the humble origins of Westwood’s now world-renowned computer science program. “It started as an after school club and has expanded massively over the years.”

Said immigrated to Canada from Morocco, North Africa. Already holding bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and education, he set his sights on computer science.

“I was very intrigued by technology. Most people going to university for computer science will enter at the undergraduate level and work their way up, but I started my studies at the Master Degree level with absolutely no background in the subject,” he said. “It was a huge challenge, but it went so well! And this approach let me get into more interesting things faster.

When I came to teach in Fort McMurray in 2007, there was no computer science program at Westwood. That’s ultimately why we opened a coding club in 2012 – we were there with our shabby computers, trying to get something off the ground."

A modest start, but the program quickly gained momentum.

“Just one year later, one of our students was invited to the Google Science Fair at their headquarters in California – one among only 15 other people on the planet! That really showed me that we were on the right track, and that we really needed to push forward with this program to ensure more kids have these kinds of opportunities.”

Progress came in stages, step by careful step. As the program took shape, its offerings improved and enrollment increased.

“We started with 15 students, then 70, and then onto 100. By now, we’re teaching more than 600 students through our program."

Said says the program’s unique delivery structure is key to its continued success.

“Ours is not a normal classroom, where students just sit around, receive their instruction, then go off to do homework. We call it an innovation space and take a product-oriented approach to learning. There’s different hardware and software around the room for them to use. The coursework is individualized, formed around the product the student wants to make – whether that’s virtual reality software, phone applications, a robot or video games.

“Our students work with the very same tools used in industry and we get them into the work right away. If a student is learning coding, they won’t start by mulling over 70 hours of code theory before trying their first project. It’s hands on, they’re actually doing things from the start.

“I handle everything software-side and my colleague, Jeff Landry, teaches hardware and robotics. But we collaborate all the time and the lab is shared between our classes,” Said said. “We teach all grade levels in our school – starting right from grade 7. We set our expectations high, but our students always grow to exceed them. It doesn’t matter if they’re younger. If they’re interested in the work they’ll go the distance, above and beyond.”

Indeed, this enthusiasm has materialized into endless success stories for both the program and its student body alike.

We have students who’ve gone to work at Tesla and other major tech companies. Others have created startups, formed their own companies around prototypes and products they’ve made here. The success we’ve seen here is incredible.”

While Said hoists most of the glory on his students, his own efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, either. In 2019, Said was honoured with the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence – a distinction he now shares with his program counterpart, Jeff Landry, who won his own Excellence award in 2022.

Though his work at Westwood has earned him wide acclaim, Said also takes pride in the adult students he teaches at Keyano College.

“I teach Information Systems for businesses, offered to those in Keyano’s business program. It’s a wide range of people – blue collar workers, single mothers, all sorts of people. And they’re all just as motivated as my students at Westwood.

“Success can start anywhere, at any time. I started learning computer science at 32. Jeff used to be our mechanic and shop teacher, and in four years he’s become one of the best robotics teachers in Canada – I can say that without hesitation.

It’s in us, and in all of our students. If you inspire people, given them room to grow and create an environment where they can succeed, they’ll find their motivation to go forward and go further in whatever they do.”

Get involved!

Sign up to participate in showcasing our authentic region -- Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.