What if you had just one week to come up with a killer application — something that would make everyone say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
And, by the way, you’ll need a detailed business plan, market research and a prototype. Sample advertising materials would be nice too. That’s the challenge that was given to over 400 highly gifted Canadian teenagers this year as part of the Shad Valley Summer Program (www.shad.ca). As you can imagine, they just lapped it up.
Shad Valley isn’t a place, it’s an experience that takes groups of about 50 bright students and puts them together on a University campus for the month after they finish grade 11 or 12. Then, if they’re lucky, they get to work at a technology-oriented partner company for the rest of the summer.
Sound like a gruelling way to spend your vacation? It is, for both the students and the staff. But over a thousand young people apply each year, and there’s a waiting list of qualified people who want to be teachers and mentors for them. I’ve been privileged to be part of Shad Valley myself every summer since 1984, and I wouldn’t trade the adventure for the world.
The students who come to Shad are the best and brightest from across the country, and often they’re not challenged in school. We know how to fix that.
For one month, they are pushed to the limit mentally (with problems that stump Mensa members,) physically (a rugged 23km hike in the Canadian Rockies is one of the traditions of the University of Calgary program) and emotionally (imagine suddenly finding 50 or so other people who are a lot like you). They form lifelong friendships, which continue in cyberspace, and, most of all, they realize what they are truly capable of accomplishing.
Last year, the Shad pressure cooker got even hotter with the addition of the Royal Bank Shad Entrepreneurship Cup. In a show of both corporate citizenship and great foresight, the Royal Bank became the National Entrepreneurship Partner for Shad Valley. The bank sponsors a national competition for new products or services developed on the Shad campuses.
In 1998, the Calgary Shads worked on the theme of “crime prevention.” We saw a detector for the date rape drug Rohypnol, an anti-theft newspaper box, and a case for your credit card that requires a pin number to open, and destroys the card if the case is forced open. Other campuses (there are nine Shad programs this year from Acadia to UBC) took up different themes. The 1998 national winner was a clever accessory for in-line skates that turns them into shoes for when you want to go into the grocery store.
The Royal Shad Cup has the look and feel of real high-tech business. Each campus has an advisor from the Royal Bank who spends countless hours with the students, and then switches roles to play the banker/venture capitalist judging their business plans.
In Thunder Bay, business banking account manager Brian Ktytor helped out at Shad Valley’s Lakehead University program. “It’s wonderful to see what people can come up with when there’s no preconceptions and when the risk aspect doesn’t come into play,” he said. “They may be young, but we see business plans every day, and these are just as good.”
Of course, in the real world he’d be asking these young entrepreneurs how they plan to secure their loans, but in the world of Shad Valley they can concentrate on pure ideas. There were some great ones, from a “grey water holding system” that recycles bath water for watering lawns, to a high-frequency device to keep predators away from farms and ranches. The winner from Lakehead was an improved composting system that addresses most of the reasons people are reluctant to get into composting.
As you can guess, Lakehead’s theme was “Environmental products,” while Calgary’s Shads chose the theme of “Easy living.” This yielded a computer-controlled aromatherapy diffuser, a milk jug that detects if the beverage has gone sour, and a port replicator that brings all your computer cables conveniently to the front so you don’t have to crawl under your desk to connect peripherals.
The winners from each campus now have about a month to perfect their ideas, prepare videotaped pitches and polish their prototypes. The nine finalists will be on exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto on Oct. 14. Displays will be open from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. with an award ceremony from 10 a.m. to noon, all open to the public. If you go there I guarantee you’ll feel a lot better about Canada’s future.
There are lessons for all of us in the way these young people tackled their tasks. Remember that they are all accustomed to being leaders, and one of the biggest challenges for them was to learn to be team players in a high pressure environment. Several asked if they could pick their own team-mates, but we assured them that’s not the way it usually works in the real world. It’s a lot better to learn how to motivate people than to try to replace them.
One thing that impressed me was the number of hidden talents, from specific computer skills to artistic design, that emerged in the crunch of that last all-nighter before presentations. I came away thinking that people often don’t get to use many of their abilities, simply because we don’t have a ready mechanism to let them shine. In this admittedly artificial world of Shad Valley, everybody can pull out all the stops and use whatever gifts they have. We do our best to make Shad Valley like the real workplace…maybe we should try to make the workplace more like Shad Valley.
Dr. Keenan, ISP, is dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, and an adjunct professor of Computer Science at both the University of Calgary and the Asian Institute of Technology.