Shad in the summertime

- July 29, 2014

The Dal Shad Valley contingent for summer 2014. (Nick Pearce photo)
The Dal Shad Valley contingent for summer 2014. (Nick Pearce photo)

Despite being full of teenagers, the atmosphere in the MacMechan Auditorium is hushed. Small knots of students are working on a genetics problem, figuring out what proportion of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley’s children will be born with red hair. They’re dressed in shorts and sweats, and look just like any university students.

Except they’re not. These are the “Shads,” 50 high school students participating in the Shad Valley summer program. The mission of the four-week program is to “provide a transformational experience that unleashes the entrepreneurial and innovative potential of exceptional youth.” Now in its 34th year, camps take place in July at universities across Canada. Dalhousie has been a Shad host since 2001.

Shad participants have a rigorous schedule of lectures, seminars, small group project work, and guest speakers. They also enjoy daily recreation, community meals, social events and field trips. “We showcase Dal, and we showcase the east coast,” says co-director Jenny Baechler.

Pushing the boundaries

It takes a passionate and committed team of Dalhousie faculty and students to make the Shad experience happen.

Jenny Baechler and Mike Smit are co-directors of Shad Valley Dalhousie this year. Baechler is associate director of the Corporate Residency MBA Program and Dr. Smit is an assistant professor in the School of Information Management. Both have been involved in Shad since 2001.

Asked what keeps them coming back year after year to work with some of the best and brightest high school students in the country, Prof. Baechler and Dr. Smit agree it’s seeing the incredible potential of the participants.

“Without a doubt, the students are high-achieving, self-motivated, and academically bright,” says Prof. Baechler. “They also have this innate curiosity to explore the world. The community they build they will take with them their whole lives.”

“Shad lets you push past any boundaries you’ve encountered in high school,” Dr. Smit adds. “We ask them to make a conscious effort to step out of their comfort zone and into their growth zone.”

Throughout the month, the Shads work on group projects. This year’s task is to develop innovative products to help Canadians “live large on a small footprint” using applied scientific and engineering principles. Team dynamics, conflict resolution, and leadership are just as important as academics.

Students are daunted in the first week, but Dr. Smit sees this as a benefit. “They’re used to being the person in the group who does most of the work, and now they’re with 49 other people who are that person, so it’s amazing to see what they can achieve.”

Dal students helping out

Helping the Shads along their academic journey are the program’s faculty members, including graduate students, Dal faculty and high school teachers. Michael Mackley, who just graduated with a Bachelor of Science and is heading to Oxford this fall as a Rhodes scholar, is delivering the Harry Potter-themed lecture about genetics.  

“It’s an opportunity to share everything I love about the work I do and what I’ve learned here at Dal with the next generation of university students,” says Mackley. “They’re at a point where they can do anything with their lives! To play a role at that pivotal time is so exciting.”  

Finally, the PAs, or “camp counselors”: These are the folks who shepherd students around campus, around the city and on field trips. They give advice, solve problems and play the role of big brothers and sisters. Most are students in professional or graduate programs at Dalhousie.

Alwyn Gomez just finished his first year of medical school. He was a Shad in 2006. “The enthusiasm and potential the kids have recharges you,” he says. “It’s a safe place to make mistakes and take risks.”

The most amazing thing about the core Shad team is that, for the month of July, they live in Shirreff Hall with the students. They study together, work together, eat together, and socialize together.

It sounds intense, and it is. Mackley says, “It helps us get to know them, and helps the staff form good relationships too.”

Challenging themselves

Over lunch, the Shads explain what the program means to them, and a couple of themes emerge.

One is belonging. They all agree the best part of Shad is the people. “We fit in with each other in an individual way, not just because we share some superficial similarity,” says Samantha Starkey, a student from Vancouver.

Another is choice. Shad students are here because they want to challenge themselves in ways they aren’t challenged at school. Alexander Glover, from Toronto, says, “At school, you’re there because you have to be. People choose to be here.”

The Shads are here because they love to learn. “Even though this is a school camp, we’re really here to have fun,” says Samantha. “For us, fun is learning things, exploring things, and being around other people who are like we are.”


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