When Bruce Gao was in high school, he visited an orphanage in China where he saw children huddled together in beds to share body heat.
It was monsoon season, and it was cold. There was heating in the building, but the solar panels meant to provide electricity weren’t installed to their full capacity.
Gao, who is now 22, wondered what he could do about that.
He researched how solar panels should be positioned to soak up the most energy, which he said was “a little daunting” for a high schooler.
And then, he spoke publicly about his plans to create an app – “I was a big computer programmer,” he said nonchalantly of his time in high school – while at the nationwide Shad program for “exceptional high school students.”
Gao said that experience solidified his decision to actually make the smartphone app, SimplySolar, with a high school classmate. The app is now used in more than 130 countries.
It works using a combination of GPS and the built-in compass in smartphones. Users place their phones on top of the solar panels, and the app shows them when the panels are facing the most effective direction.
Pointing solar panels in the right direction can make them up to 40 per cent more effective, Gao said.
Now Gao is in his second year of medical school at the University of Calgary. He said that what he liked about coding and creating apps was the ability to help people, and he gets the same thing out of medicine.
The Shad program, which Gao said convinced him to build the app, is now in its 37th year. The 2016 program begins Monday, and more than 700 high school students will participate.
“One of the things we believe is that you can’t really leave it to chance, that the best and brightest minds are going to develop to their capabilities,” said Teddy Katz, a spokesperson for Shad.
So through the program, students travel to universities – 12 are participating across the country – where they listen to lectures from prominent university professors and business leaders.
They also work in groups to come up with a business proposal that creates a new product or service to solve a social problem. In the autumn, a winning proposal will be selected.
Last year, students focused on a lack of physical activity in Canadian kids’ lives. The proposal that won was a machine that could be installed in public parks to dispense sporting equipment, like a combination between a library and a vending machine.
This year’s theme has yet to be announced, but the program has already started. One of the students participating is 16-year-old Debbie Dada of Toronto.
Dada said she plans on going into medical research when she’s older. She said that right now, she’s especially interested in how to decrease the infant mortality rates in developing countries.
She got the idea when she was on a field trip for anthropology class, she said. Her teacher mentioned the infant mortality rate in the central African country of Chad. (The latest data puts the rate at about 89 deaths per 1,000 babies born, compared to about 4.5 per 1,000 in Canada.)
“I was just blown away,” Dada said.
Thinking about – and researching – what she could do, she decided that education about sanitary births was key.
“I think it’s important to share that knowledge in an efficient way, where it doesn’t just help a couple people, it helps thousands,” she said.
And she’s also done work at home. She started a program called “Find Your Path,” which brings motivational speakers to schools to help give kids the confidence to aspire for big things.
She said she got her drive from her family – her paternal grandfather didn’t go to school, she said. But her father has a PhD.
Growing up in an environment where she felt like she could accomplish a lot really helped her, she said. And she hopes her experience this summer will help her, too. She’ll be spending the month of July in Thunder Bay, Ont., with the Shad program.
She said she’s looking forward to learning from people who have already built successful careers in science and technology fields, and also to working with peers who have similar interests.