Today I’m launching a new series of posts about student engagement with ShiftKey Labs I’d like to call “Infinite Loop”.
If you’re a programmer, you know all too well the dreaded infinite loop that can wreak havoc on a computer or server. I’d like to redefine this term and spin it into something positive.
The “Infinite Loop Series” name represents the continuous cycle of support we provide to students through workshops, hackathons, networking events, and one-on-one advising sessions while engaged with ShiftKey. This programming helps students at the earliest stages of innovation gain business and technical skills, expand their professional networks, and enhance a student’s degree in a variety of ways. We become part of team that assists with the discovery process, learning, and journey forward to help students evaluate the potential of a project idea. This is truly an “infinite loop” of feedback and support as students weave in and out of the lab to access the resources they need to be successful.
Matt Zimola has leveraged a variety of ShiftKey Labs programming since 2016. He attended workshops, hackathons, participated in the first cohort of the Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp, and was a Lab Resident from Fall 2016-2017. He has accessed almost every innovation-based program at Dalhousie and as a Lab Resident alumnus, has now spread his wings to access other innovation-based supports in the region. Matt describes some of this journey in the video below.
If you would like to learn more about ShiftKey Labs and start your innovation-based journey, please register for one of our events in the Calendar or contact us for more information.
Drawing comics, writing stories, and designing products are all examples of tasks that require a high level of creativity. Anything with an artistic component usually brings some form of creativity to our mind. It makes sense – creation is inherent in the artistic process. And because creativity is so salient in the artistic professions, it can easy to forget how important it is in other places. Surgeons, teachers, and chefs all apply creativity in their day-to-day professions. There are always new medical technologies being developed, new teaching methods demonstrating difficult concepts, and new dishes showing up in two-minute videos on Facebook. At the core of each of these is innovation. And in every innovator, there is an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurship isn’t the first thing that comes mind in
association with creativity but it’s certainly not a large mental leap.
Entrepreneurs have to be creative.
They design new products and services to solve problems in a world full of
other peoples’ solutions. Often, the difference between a successful and
unsuccessful entrepreneur is the ability to create a product or service that
stands out from the rest. In doing so, a successful entrepreneur is creating
something that hasn’t been created before.
If you wouldn’t describe yourself as a creative person, you’re not alone. In fact, some studies even suggest that creativity in North America is declining. But research also shows that people’s beliefs about their own creative potential don’t correlate with their actual performance on creative tasks. So, if you look at a piece of play-dough and don’t see the statue of David waiting to be carved out, don’t fret!
This term, ShiftKey Labs is offering the Sandbox Discover
program to help entrepreneurs in Halifax to re-discover their creative
potential. We say re-discover because there is a creative person inside all of
us. At some point, when we were all children, we could look at a rectangular
blob of clay and see a rabbit with lasers shooting out of its ears. That
creative eye fades over time – often resulting from a fear of judgement. We
don’t want to talk about our ideas until we know it’s the best idea. We don’t want to put forward an idea that is destined to
fail. The blob of clay becomes a rectangle because we fear that nobody else
will see the rabbit.
Sandbox Discover is a seven-week program led by Dr. Jenny Baechler that teaches elements of design thinking to budding entrepreneurs. Our first week was a crash course on design thinking. If you’ve never heard of design thinking (or human-centric design, if you prefer), it’s an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes quantity over quality in the early stages of creation. By observing problems in the world as they happen, we look to the people experiencing those problems to find inspiration for a solution.
So maybe you want to help the city of Halifax become more
environmentally friendly. That’s a big task. Instead of tackling the issue
head-on, design thinking would encourage you to go out to places that could use
some assistance. Maybe it’s a library, the boardwalk, or restaurants downtown.
At each of those places, you might see people leaving garbage at tables. Maybe
you notice that garbage cans are not easily found from the places where people
are sitting. Or maybe you notice that there isn’t
a problem with garbage. At this stage of innovation, you’re not looking for
problems or solutions – you’re looking for observations to bring back to the
drawing board for inspiration.
Sending people out into the real world is exactly what we had the students do in
our second week of the program. Our problem was how to enhance group
experiences for students at Dalhousie University. We sent our Discoverers out
in groups to make observations at each of the buildings on campus. After 20
minutes, many had only observed an empty atrium, making observations about the
layout of the building instead of how people were interacting. At this stage,
an empty room is just as valuable as a full one. After all, it could reveal
that a problem for groups at Dalhousie is a lack of places to congregate. After
discussion of our findings (and some free pizza!), the night was finished.
Finally, in our most recent session, we took our observations back to the lab and started to come up with insights. Maybe the atrium in the Killam was empty because people didn’t feel welcome in the evening hours. Or maybe people were just at class. Insights don’t necessarily have to be right. They’re just a way of taking the observations we make and trying to synthesize knowledge from them. As the mantra of design thinking goes, Discoverers tried to generate as many insights as they could in order to have as much to work with as possible.
The Sandbox Discover program is free, includes pizza and pop each week, and occurs every Wednesday from 6:00 – 8:00pm in ShiftKey Labs (Goldberg Computer Science Building, Room 426). You can register online for it or even just show up at the door! If you’re worried about having missed the first few weeks of the program, fear not! Each workshop is modular, meaning they are independent of the material discussed in other workshops. Our last week of the program will be a three-hour Design Challenge that brings everything together from the previous sessions. Those who attended the majority of the previous sessions will certainly have an edge over those who did not, but we welcome everybody to try and apply design thinking to the task!
So if free pizza, a wonderful learning environment, and valuable knowledge sound like something you’d be interested in, join us next Wednesday! At our next session, we’re really starting to see how design thinking helps us to generate ideas. Expect to see many sticky notes, hear (and encourage) ridiculous ideas, and experience how design thinking truly does spark innovation in everyone’s mind!I
If you’ve ever been around children while they’re playing
tag, you’ve probably had to make a difficult interpretation. Are they screaming
because they’re having fun? Or are they screaming because they’re terrified and
need help? Without context, it can be really difficult to tell the difference. Play
is frequently reminiscent of behaviours that are dangerous or just plain boring.
Have you ever seen a toddler playing with dolls? It boils down to changing the
doll’s clothes or pretending to go to work – things that, in reality, are just
uneventful rituals of our daily lives. As adults, the behaviours we pretended
to do when we played as kids become the norm. Picking out a shirt in the
morning isn’t the fun process that it was with the dolls because we do it every
Play, at its core, is one of the most difficult-to-interpret
behaviours that a living creature can exhibit. If you’ve ever witnessed two
dogs playing, it can look vicious. They snarl, bite, and the noises they make
can even be scary if you don’t know them well. In fact, modern
psychology views play as a learning tool for practicing behaviours
that won’t be necessary until later. Tag looks so much like running from a
predator because that’s exactly what
it is emulating. Play is the reason we don’t have to teach ourselves how to run
and scream when a predator really does come our way.
If you can subscribe to this interpretation of play, then it
shouldn’t be a huge leap to see how play helps us even in our adult lives. But,
at some point, playing tag and dress-up became a thing that kids do and we
don’t. Is there really any reason for that? The desire to play is still there. Video
games and organized sports are still fun for adults, after all.
So where did the toys and the children’s games go? Why did
they stop becoming as much fun as they used to be? One way to interpret it is
this: we stop playing tag because we’ve already learned to run as fast as we
can. We stop playing dress-up because we know what kind of clothes we like to
put on in the morning. Now that we’ve got the basics down, play takes a
different form of modeling the other behaviours we still need to practice. For
programmers, this might be fooling around with a new programming language. For
artists, it could be drawing exaggerated, ridiculous creatures that never make
it to the final draft. This is the most important part of play: it gives us a
circumstance in which failure is okay. In fact, it’s even encouraged.
There are several
reasons why the majority of start-ups fail. Here at ShiftKey Labs,
we completely embody the philosophy that failure should be an integral part of
developing any business idea. However, if failure is going to happen, it should
be early enough in the development of your idea that the consequences aren’t
severe. And how do we ensure that failure happens early? We play, of course!
This isn’t to say that students at ShiftKey Labs are running
around playing tag (although, under the right circumstances, they could be). Instead, play could involve
making a cardboard cut-out of a fake phone with paper screens to simulate how
an app might work. It could be roleplaying a phone call to a new pizza delivery
service. If it seems silly, it should. If we are simulating an environment where
failure is an encouraged option, then that environment should positive, fun,
and contain at least a little laughter. Play makes it hilarious when you
realize that you forgot to add a button to bring your user back to the main
menu. And, more importantly, play makes it easy to modify your idea when it
does fail. It is so much easier to add a paper screen to your cardboard phone
than to program a button into your app.
Encouragement to fail even extends beyond modifying just one
idea. Part of the design process involves generating as many ideas as possible.
Some of those ideas might not be practical, plausible, or even possible. Maybe
that edible pizza box just isn’t sanitary. But ridiculous ideas can be a great
place to start. After all, a blank page can be so much more intimidating than one
full of scribbles. Students who come into the lab almost never end with the
idea they started with. Sometimes, ideas have to be scrapped. Sometimes, a
great idea has already been done. It happens to the best of us. But it’s how we
move on in the face of failure that matters so much more. Having a drawing
board with more ideas ready to try out means that failure is taking a few steps
back instead starting at the beginning. And if we’re going to fail, we should
probably do it with a smile on our face.
So prepare for failure. Embrace it. Have fun with it.
ShiftKey Labs is one of the Nova Scotia Sandboxes for exactly
that reason. Build a sand castle. Laugh when the tide washes it way. Reshape
it. Rebuild it. Build a moat to protect it from the water. We believe that if
you can play with failure, you’ll have built your sand empire by the end of the
Story by: Allison Kincade, Dalhousie University, Faculty of Computer Science
Not your average summer camp
For the second year in a row, ShiftKey Labs—the Dal-hosted innovation sandbox in the Goldberg Computer Science Building—co-designed and delivered a province-wide bootcamp for budding entrepreneurs, the Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp.
Twelve Dalhousie students worked alongside forty-six others hailing from 7 universities and 6 other sandboxes, to tackle one central issue facing Nova Scotian communities today: How might people who live in Nova Scotia reduce the amount of plastic and paper that ends up in the landfill?
Premier Stephen McNeil stopped by to see the innovation in action, giving a few words of support and encouragement for all involved.
Collaboration is key
The aim of the bootcamp was to help students discover more about their own ability to create unique and impactful responses to real-world challenges, with design-thinking – or human-centered design – at its core.
Last year, teams competed for finalist positions over the course of three months. This year, the human-centered approach saw students also divided into smaller groups, but with the intent of splitting up across the multidisciplinary fields of study with the final objective of advancing stronger student connections within the cohort, and showcasing the real value that comes from collaborating within a diverse group of individuals.
“After last year’s Bootcamp, we felt that the best way to harness the collaborative potential of the entire cohort would be to remove the competitive project ‘pitch’ where the ‘best’ team would win the prize money,” says Grant Wells, manager of ShiftKey Labs.
“I feel that the solutions generated were of a much higher quality, as teams maximized their learning without the barriers to collaboration.”
Master of Applied Computer Science Student and ShiftKey Labs student participant, Shilpa Singh, was pleasantly surprised by the diverse culture backgrounds and fields of study that her peers brought to the bootcamp. “It was great exposure for me; I got a chance to really expand my network,” she says.
Design-thinking and problem solving
The issue at hand was an easy one to get students to buy into. The topic of recycling and reducing contamination of items to be recycled is constantly trending across disciplines – and has an impact on every citizen.
To help tackle the problem at hand, students spent their two weeks immersed in interactive workshops and learning the process, alongside time for independent experimentation. Students were equipped with a handful of approaches to problem solving and practiced new tools for testing and solving ideas.
When asked to reflect on their experience, most students highlight the lessons they learned in brainstorming, noting that their perception on how to approach it has been flipped on its head.
“This was a major life lesson for me on a new way of brainstorming,” Singh says. “Just by using simple techniques like writing your ideas on sticky notes, drawing stick figures to explain the solution, and following the whole procedure of human design thinking, I learned a completely new way of looking at a problem and finding the solution from people’s perspective.”
Students were also encouraged to actually get outside to observe people’s behaviours and talk to them about what they were thinking. “The whole program was conducted in a way where we came up with a solution to a problem, without even realizing we were working on it the whole time!” Singh adds. “This was really a once in a lifetime experience for me.”
Students went from having little to no understanding of what design-thinking even meant to having enough confidence to work individually, in small groups, and a mash-up of groups – to develop ideas that led to solution-driven early prototypes that could impact our society.
“Next year, we will continue to evolve the program and improve upon its success,” says Wells. “I would like even more Dal students to experience this amazing opportunity, take advantage of the variety of skills development programs offered at ShiftKey Labs, and the network of provincial sandboxes.”
Asked what he feels the main value in activities like this is, Wells remarks, “Ultimately, it can be life changing for a student to join our open and welcome community. No matter what, it will further enhance their overall academic experience here at Dalhousie.”
First, it is the only WordPress related conference east of Montreal! WordCamps are an international movement of accessible conferences aimed at covering all things related to the popular CMS. The goal is to create an informative and accessible event for people of all skill levels and backgrounds to learn about WordPress.
On Saturday, June 16 2018, 200 attendees will take in 21 sessions ranging from code, marketing, design, accessibility, how-tos, community and more. $25 gets you access to all sessions, free lunch, swag and a killer afterparty. Compared to many other tech events – that price is a steal!
Coders will enjoy the dedicated developers track. Last year’s topics included REST API, performance troubleshooting, workflows and remote worker mental health. Founders will enjoy the content creators track, which focuses on everything from design to marketing strategies. And finally, the site creators track is fantastic for picking up tricks and tips to make the most of WordPress. Content-wise, there is something for everyone at WordCamp.
How can you participate?
Have something interesting to say about WordPress? A call for 40 minute speaker sessions is open until May 1. You can talk about how WordPress enhances your web experience. Whether you’re an end-user with something interesting to say about the platform or a seasoned vet looking to regale the crowds with your experiences and expertise, we’re listening. Not sure if your desired topic suits the venue? Just ask. We’re happy to help would-be presenters hone their skills.
Additionally, there will be a Happiness Bar signup closer to the event that will be looking for attendee volunteers. What exactly is a Happiness Bar? Well, it doesn’t serve drinks, but it does serve up plenty of smiles! The Happiness Bar is staffed with incredible WordPress talents available to help you troubleshoot your sites, plugins, themes and all things WordPress.
Of course, you can also buy a ticket and take in all this exciting programing.
So what are you waiting for? Get in on the action of Halifax’s second WordCamp!
On Saturday, November 25th, seven teams students participated in the first hackathon aimed specifically at 1st and 2nd year students at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Community College.
Throughout the day, each team developed innovative ideas for products using any technologies they were comfortable with in three prize categories worth $250 each: the “most social”, the “most humorous”, and the “most complete”.
To help students with any questions they might have about product development and coding, eleven students at the senior undergraduate and masters level at Dal volunteered their time to support the event.
“There was a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement in the room – right from the start” reports Grant Wells, Manager of ShiftKey Labs. “Everyone was competing hard for the prizes but there were a lot of laughs so I know they were enjoying this opportunity to apply their coding skills in fun, creative ways.”
Each team presented their ideas and rough demos of their solutions to the room but instead of evaluating winning teams with a traditional panel of judges, each person in the room voted on the ideas they felt were best in the three prize categories.
The winner for “most social” application was team “1UP” – a place for Dalhousie Societies to share their talents, improve their clubs, and interact with other students with different interests and different backgrounds.
Team “Chipotle” earned “most humorous” prize to help students ease their depression by tickling their funny bone with videos based on their comedic interests.
The “most complete” application prize went to team “Snack Track” – an app that helps people track their food and get more information on what they’re eating to make more informed dietary decisions.
A siri-like app, developed by current and former Dalhousie students, to assist older people and those with dementia to recall information easily and independently using artificial intelligence has recently been awarded $50,000 investment after success at national and regional competitions.
Last week, Volta Labs in partnership with Innovacorp and BDC Capital, launched the Volta Cohort – a new $125,000 micro fund for Atlantic Canadian early-stage companies. The Dalhousie-based team, MyMem were one of five Halifax companies to be awarded a $25,000 funding and mentorship package at the November 14th launch event, following a competitive pitching process.
This follows similar success at a national ideathon competition. Back in October, AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence and HACKING HEALTH hosted the culmination of a Canada-wide competition to identify and invest in new technologies and services to support healthy aging. MyMem placed second in the national initiative and took home $25,000 investment.
MyMem is the creation of alumnus Eric Fisher (PhD Biochemistry & Molecular Biology ’13) and current Master of Applied Computer Science program students Harish Gopinath, Arun Athisamy, and Aishwarya Ravichandran.
“We wanted to develop a solution for dementia sufferers and their families to makes things easier for those suffering from memory loss, their caregivers and families,” said Ravichandran.
“Through AI based personalized voice command, MyMem helps people living with dementia recall information quickly and independently, and hold onto memories and experiences. It will enable users to access important information and photos by voice command, requiring very little proficiency with technology. We hope the app will be fun to use as well as helpful and believe this could change the way disorders such as dementia are approached.”
MyMem’s recent accomplishment follows first-place success earlier this year at HACKING HEALTH HALIFAX in March, and Nova Scotia Sandboxes Introduction to Innovation Bootcamp in May.
The team is based out of innovation sandbox ShiftKey Labs in the Goldberg Computer Science Building, where they have benefitted from the expertise of lab manager, Grant Wells.
“MyMem have shown real potential since the idea was first conceptualized earlier this year,” says Wells. “The app could have a huge impact on people’s lives and the way in which health professionals deal with dementia, related disorders and those living with them.”
Following their recent wins, MyMem are looking ahead and moving forward with tailoring the app to better serve customers.
“The investment from both competitions will make a huge difference in how we can continue to innovate and develop the best product possible for users,” Harish Gopinath says. “We are hoping to go public with the app in 2018 and the investment of support and money we have received so far will really help to make this happen.”
“We wanted to create a program that allowed students to explore the commercial potential of their idea that was also as flexible and impactful as possible” describes Grant Wells, Manager and co-organizer of the program. “I feel the entire bootcamp team really stepped-up and delivered a program that was a large success for everyone involved.”
58 students applied and 38 students/23 teams were accepted into the 12-week program. Each week, students were required to attend a full day of curriculum in their respective sandbox, attend a minimum 1/2 hour progress review meeting with their Sandbox Manager, and work a minimum of 14 additional hours on their project.
Some teams spent their time developing technology-focused businesses using artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) while others chose more traditional businesses such as a woodworking company using reclaimed wood source material and a local apple cider company.
In the end, 10 teams were selected as finalists to pitch at the August 24th Demo Day to a panel of 5 judges and approximately 80 other spectators.
After much deliberation, the panel of judges chose two winning teams and awarded $50,000 in prize money—$20,000 to Creative Urban Timber and $30,000 to the Island Folk Cider House.
Many bootcamp alumni have chosen to continue developing their products by returning to ShiftKey Labs as Lab Residents with a few of those teams also joining other regional incubator and accelerator programs.
Demo Day Teams
Please click the links below for more information on each of the Demo Day presenting teams.
By: Kashmala Fida For Metro Published on Mon Aug 07 2017
A new Siri-like application to help seniors with dementia or memory loss is in the works thanks to a group of current and former Dalhousie University students.
MyMem is the brainchild of graduate Eric Fisher, and current Masters of Applied Computer Science program students Harish Gopinath, Arun Athisamy, and Aishwarya Ravichandran, who have been working on the app since March.
“Our app enables us to easily access important information and photos by voice command and it requires very little use of technology,” said Fisher, who graduated with a PhD in biochemistry in 2013.
“We want to provide families and caregivers, residences with a private group account within which they can share information.”
Fisher said they wanted to create something that was both helpful and fun to use.
The idea for the app was conceived at an event called Hackathon, put together by Hacking Health, a social organization that works to improve technology development in the health sector.
During his speech, co-founder Luc Sirois mentioned that he wished for his mother to be able to access memories on her phone via Siri.
Fisher said they went with the idea from there.
“Right now we have the prototype. We are developing a version that can be tested by people which will release this fall,” he said.
Fisher said they are reaching out to the public through Kijiji and social media to look for families that could benefit from this app.
They are looking for people, not only to use the app but also to interview and talk about what their problems are on a daily basis, and to get a deeper understanding of the challenges they face.
From the information gathered, they will tailor the app to better help people.
“Their input will help us really make MyMem into something like a real, meaningful, positive impact on people’s lives.”
The application project is part of an Introduction to Innovation Bootcamp out of ShiftKey Labs at the Dalhousie University.
The group recently completed phase one of the bootcamp and are progressing to phase two.
They hope to release a broader version of the app for public use by 2018.
It may be summer but Dal-hosted innovation sandbox ShiftKey Labs is buzzing with activity from emerging entrepreneurs.
Based in the Goldberg Computer Science Building, ShiftKey is hosting seven teams from the Faculty of Computer Science all taking part in the NS Sandboxes Project Incubation Bootcamp.
From a Canadian Visa Superhero to an automatic meeting scheduler, teams are two thirds of the way through a three-month long provincial bootcamp to develop their innovation ideas.
Cutting-edge artificial intelligence
RovBOT uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence algorithms to understand the needs of individuals manoeuvring through the Canadian visa process. The idea is being developed by Computer Science graduate students Ruhi Madiwale, Dhivya Jayaraman and JeyaBalaji Samuthiravelu.
“Through Facebook Messenger, RovBOT makes the visa process easy by guiding users every step of the way, providing customised guidance”, says Ruhi Madiwale, Master of Applied Computer Science student and RovBOT Tech Evangelist. “We have trained RovBOT using publicly-available information from Citizenship and Immigration Canada(CIC) to understand individual needs and keep track of application deadlines and documentation.”
“As international students at Dalhousie who have all gone through making visa applications, we saw a need to make the visa process easier and more streamlined for those wanting to come to Canada. We hope that RovBOT can fill that gap and also offer tailored support for newcomers.”
Nurturing business potential
The aim of the bootcamp is to support teams of up to 3 founding members in the early stages of developing a product which has some business potential.
“Through mentorship, innovation-focused workshops and collaborative workspace, we are supporting the next generation of Halifax start-ups get off the ground”, says Grant Wells manager of ShiftKey Labs. “Sandboxes across the province are hosting teams with a diverse range of ideas; it’s amazing to witness the innovation and help in developing ideas which could have a real impact on day-to-day life.”
Connor Walsh, Computer Science alum, had an everyday workplace struggle in mind when developing automated meeting scheduler, Let’s Schedule.
“Identifying group availability for meetings is a common problem for most people in the workplace,” says Walsh. “This inspired me to think about developing a solution that goes beyond the traditional systems currently used.
“Let’s Schedule finds suitable group meeting slots by automatically looking at individual calendars and highlighting ideal times and dates for everyone, without requiring any manual input from users. The solution can be incorporated into existing calendar systems used in the workplace.”
Teams will go head-to-head in final presentations on August 24, with the most promising teams receiving prize money from a pool of $50,000.