Shad Valley Innovation Boot Camp Nurtures Young Minds

Teach kids to revere invention, in all the wondrous forms it takes.

Shad Valley Program Nutures Young Innovators | BCBusiness
Shad Valley’s summer program teaches high school students that innovation is fun.

Teach kids to revere invention, in all the wondrous forms it takes.

As the kids head back to school and the technology business cranks back up after the lazy days of summer, it’s a good time to reflect on how the two intersect. I am not referring to e-learning per se, but rather the need to develop a critical mass of innovators, engineers, marketers and salespeople with the right tools to accelerate the technology industry. According to the Technology Strategy part of the B.C. Jobs Plan announced in July by Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Pat Bell, there is a plan for developing talent for a knowledge-based economy. (Isn’t it interesting that an industry that employs 80,000 people and plans to account for 7.5 per cent of GDP by 2014 has a minister whose job also includes attracting tourists? But I digress.)

The provincial Technology Strategy has four pillars, one of which is to develop talent. But the strategy does not contain enough specifics on how to develop talent, referring obliquely to the B.C. Education Plan. Developing our next generation of technology workers should be equally divided into two initiatives: attract the best and brightest from all over the world, and make technology careers relevant to young kids so that they are excited to become researchers, engineers and software developers. Nothing sells more than success, whether it is to kids or to foreign workers. I am not speaking of monetary success necessarily, but of outstanding innovation that leads to invention and commercialization. We need to embrace the desire to be excellent here in B.C. It needs to become very cool to build something insanely great. A cultural shift like that requires some alterations in what we teach our kids and, possibly, who teaches them.

When BCBusiness celebrates B.C.’s best innovators every April, it isn’t just technology companies, although we tend to think of innovation in the shape of a smartphone. Innovation can occur in any industry and come in the form of a new product idea or a service. Innovation is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship, but it can also occur in large companies.

The best decision my wife and I made with our teenaged son was to help him get into the Shad Valley summer program. This 30-year-old program takes the best and brightest math and science kids (who also have a creative bent) and puts them in innovation boot camp for a month between Grade 11 and 12. Every year, 500 young Canadians are thoroughly inspired by immersion in the latest research on university campuses across the country, and they exercise their creativity with a group project. Shad grads pepper the Canadian technology community today and the alumni talk about the eye-opening experience of their month at Shad at age 17.

How does Shad do it? In a nutshell, the organizers make it fun. There are lectures on what it takes to be innovative, but the lectures are wrapped in an engaging environment with a real sense of belonging. Technology stars are added to the mix: local researchers and entrepreneurs share real stories and inventions. My son dropped off Skype the other night because a professor was coming to talk to his group. This was at 9 p.m. On a Sunday. In July. These are passionate people inspiring a new generation.

I am reminded of a very funny Intel advertisement where office people are swooning in slow motion as it appears a celebrity is walking in their midst, winking and signing autographs. Then you see the celebrity is a middle-aged portly Indian man who is the inventor of the USB. That is what we need the kids to understand: there are real heroes of innovation in B.C. Make them celebrities of the new knowledge economy. We should have these innovator heroes help attract talent from abroad and build it here at home. Make it cool and make it fun to learn about innovation. Just like Shad Valley does.