2020 SPARK Social Innovation Challenge

November 12, 2020

Audrey Boyle

In 2020, innovative thinking and problem solving are more important than ever. On a global scale, the sheer amount of issues can seem insurmountable. However, projects like the Wilson Center’s SPARK Social Innovation Challenge encourage students to closely examine the issues affecting their own communities, enabling students to make a tangible change by working with community partners and tackling the very problems they are most familiar with.

Over the years, the SPARK Social Innovation Challenge (once known as the Spark Tank) has evolved in multiple ways. The challenge was originally conceived in 2015 in association with the Grinnell Prize, an annual award granted to accomplished individuals from all over the world who are committed to social change and innovation. SPARK aims to prepare and inspire the students of Grinnell College to strive for the same level of achievement as Grinnell Prize winners on a more local scale. Previous SPARK projects, such as Lunchtime Language Learners and the Grinnell-Newburg High School Student Resource Center, have provided many College students the opportunity to get involved with the community.

SPARK is a community-oriented project; in the past, community partners identified local problems. Students were then assigned to teams that would work alongside these community partners to come up with an effective solution that properly addresses the community’s needs.

Although SPARK projects have previously been targeted towards problems in the broader Grinnell community, the focus of 2020’s young entrepreneurs was sustainability on campus, an ongoing mission of the College. The winner of the 2020 SPARK Challenge, Sharene Gould Dulabaum ’22, centered her project around the major problem of excess waste on campus. After observing that many students failed to properly sort their trash into compost, landfill, and recycling, Dulabaum proposed a new system of centralized waste bins that would standardize and streamline the process of sorting waste, potentially saving the College thousands of dollars. Dulabaum hopes to implement a pilot version of the project in the 2021-22 school year.

Students interested in participating in the SPARK Social Innovation Challenge were required to register for or audit a one-credit short course taught by Wilson Center Director and Associate Professor of Anthropology Monty Roper. The course, which will also be offered in the upcoming Spring Term 1, is essentially a crash course covering areas of applied anthropological fieldwork, policy studies, and human-centered design. Participants in the course learn how to conduct human-centered research that integrates community members into the process of identifying a problem and working to solve it. The course culminates in students presenting their projects to a panel of expert judges who choose the winner. The winning project receives up to $15,000 of funding support, and the student is also eligible for guaranteed internship funding for the upcoming summer to begin implementation.

This year, due to the dispersal of College students all across the world, the prompt for identifying community-based problems will be much more open-ended. Students will be encouraged to work in their own backyard, wherever they may be geographically located. Roper stressed the importance of students working and identifying problems in communities that they are directly invested in. Students can register for this year’s course, in Spring Term 1, starting on Nov. 12, 2020.

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