NS Sandboxes Bootcamp Fosters Creativity, Innovation for Entrepreneurs

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.”