Necessity is the mother of invention. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the myriad ways we now meet virtually. Businesses and organizations across the world have adapted their services, events and programs to be digital by default. 

Canada’s UX festival, Fluxible, turned its week-long series of workshops and conference into a day’s worth of retro-styled programming with Fluxible TV. Here at Communitech, we had to make the right (but difficult) decision to cancel our third annual True North Festival, which had been scheduled for the first week of June. Instead of in-person talks about Tech For Good, we took the conversations online with True North TV. Our good friends at the Summer Lights Festival did something similar and are bringing you weekly live music sessions to keep us connected and inspired.

Live streaming works great as a stand-in for large-scale live events and programs. But what about programs where being there in person is a major part of the experience?

For Waterloo-based Shad Canada, taking their program online would be no small feat. Since 1980, Shad has brought some of the country’s brightest Grade 10 and 11 students to university campuses for a month-long program. Each summer, more than 1,000 students leave home to attend the Shad program at 19 university campuses across Canada – including the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. 

You can find quite a few Shad alumni working today at tech companies in Waterloo Region. Ted Livingston (founder of Kik), Jay Shah (co-founder of BufferBox, former director at Velocity), Joanne McKinley (Software Engineering Manager at Google), Katie Cerar (Sr. Product Lead at Shopify) and Devon Galloway (Co-Founder, CTO at Vidyard) are just a few.

“This was our most challenging year,” said Tim Jackson, President and CEO of Shad Canada. “With not being able to operate on campus, we had to figure out how to deliver a STEAM and entrepreneurship program online.”

In a normal year, the Shad participants spend a month solving a real-world problem. In the past, they’ve tackled problems including food security, water management and dealing with waste and recycling. It’s an immersive program, with the students living on campus in residence. They attend lectures, workshops, labs and go on field trips, all in the pursuit of knowledge and making the world a better place. “These are big problems that they’re working on and they have to come at it from a scientific or engineering perspective,” added Jackson.

Tackling big problems is what Shad is all about. Thankfully, the team members behind Shad are no slouches when it comes to innovation. “The question for us was, ‘How do you do a design project online?’”

The answer was to take Shad virtual. Starting on July 6, Shad’s 600 students began the first-ever online Shad program. Instead of living and learning on campus, the students are divided into virtual campuses of 60 students each. Within those campuses, teams of eight students each have a mentor and are working to tackle something out of this world.

“This year’s question for Shad students is how might we leverage space as a creative research platform to humankind,” Jackson said. The effects on materials and life from microgravity are a constant source of discovery for scientists and researchers. The Shad students are looking into what materials are best for manufacturing in orbit and on terra firma. “Are there new materials that can work in microgravity that have applicability to Earth-based manufacturing?” asked Jackson.

The Shad team worked with Blue Origin (founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) to find a way to design and produce a space experiment as part of an online project. “It’s a great opportunity to have a leading tech company working with a student STEAM group like this.”

The students are working to take their idea from market research to business plan – all the way to a final prototype that will launch into space aboard a Blue Origin New Shepard launch vehicle.

At the end of the program, 10 finalist projects will be selected to compete for the grand prize: launching into orbit aboard the uncrewed Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. “Each project has to fit into something the size of a shoebox,” added Jackson. “This will be the first time a Canadian student experiment goes into orbit on a private space flight.”

During the program, Shad students from all the virtual campuses come together for keynotes with speakers including the University of Waterloo’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist Donna Strickland, entrepreneur Michele Romanow and Jeff Cyr, co-founder and managing partner of  Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, who will be speaking about the Indigenous Innovation Initiative.

“We’re in a pandemic, but people have been so generous with their time,” Jackson said, pointing out that this is an especially difficult time for students. One of those students is Quinn Lang, a Waterloo high school student who was accepted into Shad this year.

“I applied back in the fall of 2019 and was accepted this February, right before the pandemic,” said Lang. “It was pretty upsetting, but then they announced they were going to do it online. I think it’s great they were able to pull it together and give us this opportunity.”

While Lang and her fellow Shad participants aren’t able to be on campus, she is making the most of her time. Like every student in Ontario, Lang is no stranger to online learning due to COVID-19. “I’m used to it being online and self-regulated,” said Lang. “A lot of time when I’m not in meetings or lectures, I have to be doing my own research and take initiative to help the team.”

A week into the program, Lang is excited about what she’s learned so far – and the possibilities for her team. “From all the activities so far, it’s a special opportunity. Developing a payload is awesome. It’s really inspiring.”

She and her teammates already have a plan for what they want to build. “Everyone is motivated. We’re looking at how manufacturing materials in microgravity are affected. This could lead to new ways of creating new alloys in space that can’t be created on Earth.”

Lang is also looking forward to attending university after she graduates. Her main area of interest is environmental engineering, specifically, hydrology and water filtration. “I love learning something new and seeing what opportunities happen,” added Lang.

Even through the haze of COVID-19, the future looks bright thanks to future leaders like Lang and the Shad Canada team.