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Sparking Inspiration and Innovation in the Midst of COVID-19

During a time of isolation, these college students are coming together virtually to develop solutions that address the inequities being exasperated by the coronavirus.

Teach For America's Inaugural Education Inequity Innovation Lab

By Alexzandria Cormier-Hill

June 16, 2020

Innovation stems from a product of motivation and desperation. The yearning to fill a need is sparked by a wave of fresh ideas on how to fill that gap.

As the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates the vast inequities that plague our nation, including disparities within our education system, it also surfaces new opportunities to deconstruct, re-evaluate, and create ground-breaking approaches to address problems facing us.

This is exactly what took place during Spark Lab, our inaugural education inequity innovation lab.

What is Spark Lab?

Like many organizations, TFA’s face-to-face events and experiences were canceled or had to be restructured due to COVID-19 safety precautions. Collegiate leaders who were slated to attend RISE Leadership Experience and IMPACT Spring Break were looking for meaningful, engaging, and inspiring ways to connect with like-minded individuals while practicing self-isolation and social-distancing. Spark Lab was created to give young change agents the unique opportunity to virtually collaborate with their peers to discuss, dissect, and develop innovative solutions that tackle real-time challenges that negatively affect marginalized students impacted by the coronavirus.

In this digital experience, collegiate leaders from across the nation were able to increase their knowledge of social and educational inequities, participate in a first-class social Innovation training from Co-Founder of SEEDSPOT, Courtney Klein, and increase their leadership and problem-solving skills while learning human-centered design.

To make things a little more interesting, students had the chance to share their solution to win up to $2500 and chat with our Teach For America’s CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, about their idea! Students also had access to pathways that allow them to continue working on their solutions with IDEO and with SEEDSPOT.

The Next Generation of Change Agents

In an Axios interview discussing COVID19 and the state of education, our CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard, stated,“We are at risk of leaving a generation of children behind. The good news is, we can still do something about it if we get organized and have a clear vision in the future. We don't want to go back to normal when it comes to education because there were lots of children being left behind in that education system. This is a moment where we can imagine something different for kids." 

“We don't want to go back to normal when it comes to education because there were lots of children being left behind in that education system. This is a moment where we can imagine something different for kids." 

With nearly 70 attendees and dozens of solutions ranging from mental health and language assistance to classroom transition support and restructuring the sense of community, our SPARK Lab participants did just that. The caliber of solutions that came out of this college cohort was nothing less than empowering. The top 3 winners, all submissions were eligible to pursue their solutions thanks in partnership with Seed Spot and IDEO.

To get a feel for the kind of innovation that took place, check out these 5-minute solution pitches from winners from this year’s Spark Lab. (And a few of their takeaways!)

1st Place -  Anti-Anxiety: Engaging Youth to the Importance of Mental Health 

Nia Anderson, Howard University & Mikayla Miller, Towson University

“I learned I am capable of so much more than I may believe. When this started I saw how many participants were in the SparkLab and I instantly got discouraged. I felt like I couldn't even compete with some of these students who attend some of the best colleges in the country, while I attend my nearby state school. Thankfully, I was paired with Nia Anderson who is a determined, intelligent and hardworking student from Howard University. We both doubted ourselves during the process but I believe that we were both more than capable. I learned that I can put anything I truly put my mind to and I am beyond proud of myself and Nia for putting together such an important project.” - Mikayla Miller

2nd Place - Village: The App

Anijah Willis, Hampton University, Chayvion Moore, University of North Texas & Emma Otremba, University of Minnesota- Twin Cities

“My biggest takeaway from SparkLab was feeling that I was making a difference. Covid-19 hit me with a lot of hopelessness, and I felt so far away from helping my community and making a change. Tackling education equity with my team was empowering to a level I have never experienced before. Nothing, even being states apart and only meeting through video conferencing could get in the way of us working together and coming up with real solutions. There is no longer an excuse for me to be sitting on the sidelines of social justice movements because I can make a difference doing the work at my dining room table.” - Emma Otremba

3rd Place - Pay the Parents!

Sarah Gur, Boston College

In order to reach one day when all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education, slacking in innovation is not an option. As we continue to shift and address the challenges facing educational equity, we’ll also continue to build a community and culture of bold, determined, and creative catalysts of change.

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