Last week, over 1,000 Grade 10 and 11 students from across Canada finished their final projects with this year’s Shad Canada entrepreneurship program. In past years, Shad would bring their students to university campuses for STEAM and entrepreneurship programming for an on-campus experience before they graduated high school. 

In 2020, the program quickly pivoted to virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With restrictions still in place earlier this year, the Shad team decided to keep the program virtual for 2021 — with some welcome improvements based on their experience over the last 18 months. 

Tim Jackson, Shad President and CEO, said that the team knew that in-person wouldn’t be possible this year. Universities including Wilfrid Laurier, Mount Allison, UBC and others are critical partners in the Shad program. Jackson wanted to find a way to include them in an updated virtual program. 

“We really wanted to reinforce our relationship with our university partners. This year, we had just under 1,000 students who were divided into virtual campuses. Although they are doing it remotely, the students are part of a university campus and the bulk of their programming is coming from that campus,” said Jackson.

Jackson added that Shad 16 university partners brought their virtual campus learnings to the table to help Shad deliver for their 2021 students. “We’ve learned a lot from our university partners in terms of how they adapted to the school year. Having university faculty and university administrators as part of the team has made a big difference.”

This year’s virtual campus program included program directors, mentors, lectures and more from the university partners. Students participated in six hours of programming a day in virtual sessions and offline to work on projects during the one-month program. In addition to virtual campus programming, all Shad students participated in weekly national keynote sessions, featuring speakers like Nobel prize-winning physicist and Queen’s professor Arthur McDonald and Frances Donald, the Chief Economist at Manulife Bank. 

Each year, the Shad team picks a social issue that students work on in small groups to develop a solution based on scientific engineering principles. The in-person Shad programs of past years had the advantage of hands-on experiences for the students. Jackson and the Shad team wanted to find a way to replicate that virtually, so they went to their partner Texas Instruments for help. 

Over the last four years, Texas Instruments has partnered with Shad on coding classes where students learned the ins and outs of the Python programming language using the TI-Innovator Hub. “When it became clear we were going to have to be virtual again this year, we reached out to Texas Instruments and the Province of Ontario to see if we could get every Shad student across Canada an Innovator Hub that they could keep,” said Jackson. “We really wanted to make sure we could provide some hands-on experiential learning, and Texas Instruments has just been an incredible partner to us. It’s been one of the highlights of the program this year.”

Texas Instruments partnered with TechQuest, an international community that provides professional development around technology for teachers, to bring the TI-Innovator Hub training to the virtual campuses. Two of the teachers involved this year are Peel-based Paul Alves and Ottawa-based Tom Steinke. Both were excited to be part of this year’s Shad virtual campus programs. 

Alves had experience from prior years with Shad, travelling around the country to campuses and teaching Shad students. “It was great to let the kids go and just allow their creativity and their problem solving abilities to create some amazing creations,” said Alves. 

During their sessions, Alves and Steinke noticed a stark contrast between the students in the Shad program and what they had seen in their computer science classrooms at home. “If you walked into a typical computer science classroom in my high school, you’d have seen 27 boys and one girl and no racial diversity,” said Steinke. “What struck me with Shad was that it was fifty-fifty boys and girls and a huge amount of cultural diversity.”

Inspired by the response to the program, Alves and Steinke started looking into how they could bring the program to every Shad campus in 2020 before the pandemic shifted their plans. They were able to ship devices to 300 students last year, but for 2021, they wanted to bring the full experience to every Shad student. “That never really sat well with them or with us, this idea that there were two classes of experiences,” said Steinke. 

Thanks to the support of the Ontario government and Texas Instruments, Alves and Steinke were able to get devices for each student — but there were still pedagogical questions on how to deliver the programming. Alves said they asked themselves how they could translate face-to-face into an online environment. “I think all of us were informed by our teaching experiences of going through it for the last 18 months of how we engage students when you’re not directly in front of them.”

Part of that process involved creating programming that could engage students with prior coding experience and those with little or no experience. “The programming is something to have them engaged, inspired and invigorated to do this stuff. That was our goal.” 

Steinke said one project stood out to him and Alves — a virtual chorus of TI-Innovator Hubs. It was a project that neither educator thought was possible with the hardware. The students at the Mount Allison virtual campus created a program for their devices to sing together.

Waterloo Grade 11 student Audrey Guo was part of the team that created the virtual chorus program at the Mount Allison virtual campus. Guo is no stranger to Shad. Her brother is a Shad alumnus, and his experience encouraged Guo to apply. “I have always heard that this is the experience of a lifetime,” said Guo. 

During her first Texas Instruments workshop, Guo asked if it was possible to make the devices play music. “I jokingly said we should do a TI-Innovator Hub choir,” added Guo. A fellow Shad student picked up the idea and ran with it. Soon, Guo was in a team chat with other students from her virtual campus working on the project. “Oh, boy, the replies started flying and by the end we had 25 people working on it.” 

The result was a collection of TI-Innovator Hubs singing the Owl City song “Fireflies” in a music video. “It blew us away,” added Steinke. “They created this not during the regular hours, they did this after hours, and they organized it themselves.”

Being exposed to coding has made an impact on Guo’s university plans. “Before Shad, my plan was to apply for an English degree or go into teaching. I’m still interested, but I have started considering computer science degrees.”

The feedback from Alves, Steinke and Guo is music to Jackson’s ears. 

“I think what it’s doing is showing resilience and adaptability. We have a group of students that have figured out how you can take eight people who are literally spread across the country and work on a project together and do it remotely without ever having been in a room. I think it will serve them well when they go into post – secondary studies and then, more importantly, into the workforce.”