SPARK Intern


Think Outside the Box

How many times have you said, or been told, to “Think outside the Box?”  We’ve heard this so many times.  Yet, how do we learn novel or creative thinking?  It’s not a typical school subject; it’s not on most MBA syllabuses.  It’s required to compete in the global market yet we’re not preparing today’s children for success.

Too often creativity is misunderstood to mean artistic.  IBM has conducted numerous polls among global CEOs that expound the importance of creative thinking.  Are we to believe these global organizations seek painters, potters and sculptors as executives?  Clearly not.  Creativity needs to be understood as a way of thinking.  That thinking is a discipline called the creative process.  There are many definitions of the creative process; boiling it down to its most simplistic form, the creative process is like a whirlwind of inspiration, iteration, and collaboration that leads to innovation. 

 Children need to learn the creative process to prepare for life, for academic and career success. 

 The U. S. was the world innovation leader from late in the 19th century through most of the 20th century.  Not anymore.   When our schools started reducing art, music and liberal studies in an effort to replicate the success Asian students were having in math and science we lessened the innovative thinking power of future generations.  With the release of the 2016 Innovation Index, Bloomberg now ranks the U. S. as eighth.  We’re slipping because our children are taught to memorize and repeat; to perform well on standardized tests.  We are not teaching children how to learn, how create or how to innovate.  Over the last few decades, the emphasis on performance through standardized testing has become a singular focus in most schools.  This is instilling a fear of failure.

 When did failure become such a bad thing? Ask any successful person if they’ve failed. The answers range from “many times” to “early and often.”  Sir James Dyson recalls that he had 5,126 failures, or iterations, until he eventually invented the world’s best-selling vacuum cleaner.  Even legendary sports icon Michael Jordan says, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  Our children have such a fear of failure that they are no longer exploring new ideas and this cripples their chances of success.

 The National Endowment for the Arts in 2008 and the SMU Meadows Prize Report in 2010 looked at the impact of art education on children.  These studies show positive outcomes such as better problem solving skills, a higher likelihood to attend college, earn a degree, do volunteer work, and hold a full-time job. 

 It’s not just about art and music education in schools.  Those things have been measured because they’re easy.  These typically are the only creative disciplines taught in schools.  When we dive deeper into understanding creativity, we learn that it’s a way of thinking and it drives innovation.  Dr. Paul Torrance studied nearly 400 children from childhood into their careers and proved that creative thinking skills can be learned.  His creativity index is able to predict who will have high performing careers such as entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. 

 So much energy is focused on the product while little or no time is spent on the process.  It’s the process of creating that gives children space to fail, that teaches them to seek alternative viewpoints, answers or solutions.  If we continue to score every effort and punish the kids who attempt new things, we’ll continue to discourage innovation. Let’s seek out opportunities that allow children to explore, to iterate and to create. For children today, there are very few safe places to fail.

 When children work through the creative process they develop higher self-esteem and take pride in their abilities to overcome obstacles.  There is a light in their eyes that is unmistakable. 

 When our eyes shine with pride, we take on greater challenges and achieve greater things.   When that light is on, failure doesn’t weigh so much.  Let’s awaken our children to the joy of creating.

 

 

 


The Power of Collaboration

Dan M. Age 17, a local high school student – Came to recognize the power of collaboration during his internship at SPARK!   “My internship at SPARK! helped me become a better problem solver and team player. I used to try and do everything myself and now I collaborate with others.  Now I feel like I could either go on to be a fashion designer or a chemical engineer, I could be anything!”

 

Collaboration between coworkers is a powerful tool that leads to innovation.  Collaboration between peers and among disparate partners helps advance art, science, medicine and more.  SPARK! teaches the principles of collaboration found in these famous examples.

 

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A Crazy Art-World Marriage

From 1980 to 1986, renowned Pop artist Andy Warhol and a graffiti prodigy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, collaborated on a number of exciting pieces that actually led them to the position they now have in the art world.

Their working process went on like this: Warhol usually painted first, and then Basquiat entered the scene with his colorful imagery. One of the most popular examples would be the piece titled Olympic Rings, completed in 1985. Warhol actually made several iterations of the Olympic five-ring symbol, to which Basquiat responded with the oppositional graffiti style.

Olympic Rings, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

 

International Cooperation

The International Space Station (ISS) Program’s greatest accomplishment is as much a human achievement as it is a technological one.  An international collaboration of space agencies from the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada all working together on the most complex space exploration program ever undertaken.

The International Space Station Program brings together international flight crews, multiple launch vehicles, globally distributed launch operations, training, engineering, and development facilities, communications networks, and the international scientific research community.  It’s collaboration of a global scale to bring “out of this world” results.

 

The Alzheimer’s Challenge

 

To confront a challenge like cancer or Alzheimer’s is to stand at the intersection of science, medicine, and engineering. Finding solutions will require a combination of expertise and powerful collaborations that very few institutions command. Stanford has created Bio-X which stands literally and figuratively at this crossroads. At Stanford, the world’s leading experts in a wide range of fields are gathered in unusual proximity—working on breakthroughs in human health, while also dramatically increasing our fundamental knowledge about the biosciences.

Other institutions offer interdisciplinary research. What makes Stanford Bio-X so special is its extraordinary faculty and students, culture of collaboration, and can-do, entrepreneurial spirit that encourages risk-taking and delivers phenomenal results.

SPARK! on Collaboration

SPARK! engages children in the creative process, which we define as Inspiration with iteration and collaboration leads to innovation.  SPARK! is literally and figuratively at the crossroads of improving educational experiences for children. Working on a myriad of projects kids at SPARK! bring out their entrepreneurial spirit and can do attitude.  SPARK! is a safe place for risk-taking and innovation.

 


The Creative Process

At SPARK! we teach the creative process.  It’s a way of thinking. A problem-solving methodology.  We define the creative process as “Inspiration with iteration and collaboration leads to innovation.” We refer to these as our “Ations” of creativity and teach them to the kids.  

 

This way of thinking sharply contrasts with most public-school curriculum. Too many schools are teaching children to memorize facts. Too few are teaching them how to think.  SPARK! gives children the opportunity to try, miss the mark, try again and continue on this process until they are satisfied with their creation.

 

There is a giant swing at SPARK! that resembles a lion head-shaped door knocker. We use this installation to illustrate the creative process. On his travels through Europe, artist Rolando Diaz was inspired (Inspiration) by the very large lion head door knockers he saw on castles throughout the country.  When we decided that the alcove in the lower level of SPARK! needed a special installation, Ro recalled his travel memories and sketched his swing concept.  

 

Once the concept was approved, we approached Pascale Pryor, an artist who works in 3D sculptures, and asked her to translate the concept into a 3D piece (Collaboration).  Pascale provided a paper machete prototype that brought some of the lion’s facial features into focus. The machete was approved and sent with the drawing to the welding team of Byron Zarabbi and James Bauer (more Collaboration). Byron and James created a small-scale mock-up that really started to capture Ro’s vision.  The work was approved and the team installed the full-size lion head at SPARK! It was beautiful.  

 

As we compared the swing to Ro’s original drawing, we thought a little more work could be done to meet the vision of the lion’s wild mane (Iteration).  Another small-scale mock-up was created in which gold and copper curls were added. This began a circular process of Collaboration and Iteration as Pascale, Byron and James set about adding hair, painting eyes, sharpening fangs, adding whiskers and even modifying the design of the swing. After a few weeks, everyone stood back and admired the swing (Innovation) as it exists today.  A gorgeous work of art resulting from the efforts of a creative team.

 

Children are often amazed to learn that a team of four, “adult, professionals” went through several rounds of trial and error to get it just the way they wanted it.  Kids don’t typically have the opportunity to work on projects through the process of iteration. Our schools don’t allow for iteration or collaboration. SPARK! encourages these important steps to let children focus on the process of learning and thinking with less emphasis on the final product.

-Beverly Davis, CEO


The Runaway Species

Excerpts from The Runaway Species

by Brandt & Eagleman © 2017

I read constantly.  The ideas and research on creativity are growing exponentially with each passing year.  Sometimes what I read impacts what we do here at SPARK! Periodically I offer bits and pieces for others to ponder.  A few months back I read The Runaway Species by Brandt & Eagleman. They’ve captured so much of what we believe and practice and they use other words to describe it.  Rather than translate or even present a book review, I’d like to share their words, as I highlighted them in reading.

Even their dedication resonates:  

  • “To our parents, who brought us into a life of creativity…our wives, who fill our lives with novelty…and our children, whose imaginations summon the future…”

In the introduction I was drawn to these thoughts that summarize the need for programming such as we offer at SPARK!:

  • …our inventiveness typically runs in the background, outside of our awareness.
  • As important as creativity has been in our species’ recent centuries, it is the cornerstone for our next steps.
  • …the world has found itself transitioning from a manufacturing economy to an information economy.
  • We are already seeing the first glimpses of this new model; the creativity economy.
  • Synthetic biologist, app developer, self-driving car designer, quantum computer designer, multimedia engineer – these are positions that didn’t exist when most of us were in school, and they represent the vanguard of what’s coming.
  • …corporate boardrooms everywhere are scrambling to figure out how to keep up…
  • Only one thing allows us to face these accelerating changes: cognitive flexibility.
  • This mandate for innovation is not reflected in our school systems.  Creativity is a driver of youthful discovery and expression – but it becomes stifled in deference to proficiencies that are more easily measured and tested.
  • If we want a bright future for our children, we need to recalibrate our priorities.
  • A balanced education nurtures skills and imagination.

Not only is creativity inherent, but, as they titled it: Chapter 1: TO INNOVATE IS HUMAN

  • The new rapidly evolves into the normal.
  • Smartphones revolutionized our communications, but new tech becomes basic, universal, and invisible before our eyes.
  • …magic of human brains: we relentlessly simulate what-ifs.
  • Hope is a form of creative speculation: we imagine the world as we wish it to be rather than as it is.
  • Creativity is an inherently social act.
  • Thanks to our appetite for novelty, innovation is requisite.
  • The innovative drive lives in every human brain…
  • The drive to create the new is part of our biological make-up.

In Chapter 2: THE BRAIN ALTERS WHAT IT ALREADY KNOWS Brandt & Eagleman dive into the first of our “Ations” Inspiration:

  • Steve Jobs…Creativity is just connecting things.  When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it.  They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
  • Human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum.  We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world.
  • …modern science historian Steven Johnson puts it, “We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”
  • Creativity relies on memory.
  • …our exceptional sociability compels humans to constantly interact and share ideas   

Brandt & Eagleman present their own definition of the creative process that resonates with the SPARK! definition through the steps of Inspiration and iteration.

  • …we propose a framework that divides the landscape of cognitive operations into three basic strategies: bending, breaking and blending.

Chapter 3: BENDING

  • Bending can remodel a source in many ways.
  • …bending is a makeover of an existing prototype,
  • …human culture incorporates an ever-expanding series of variations on themes passed down from generation to generation.

Chapter 4: BREAKING

  • …something whole…is taken apart, and something new assembled out of the fragments.

Chapter 5: BLENDING

  • In blending, the brain combines two or more sources in novel ways.
  • By enabling different lines of thought to breed in novel ways, blending is a powerful engine of innovation.

Often we talk about the importance of allowing children to take risk.  Risk taking not only in their play, but also in their learning. Our schools today don’t encourage risk, and testing is set-up so that failure is a frightening prospect.  We must allow children to take risks and we must refrain from penalizing them when they do so. Brandt & Eagleman dedicate an entire chapter to this concept; then they move on to talk about what we hope will be the school of the future.

Chapter 10: TOLERATE RISK

  • …new ideas take root in environments where failure is tolerated.
  • James Dyson invented the first bag-less vacuum cleaner.  It took 5,127 prototypes and fifteen years for him to nail the model that would finally go to market.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
  • Like so many other human endeavors, creativity is strengthened with practice
  • FabLabs, Makerspaces, and TechShops are burgeoning, with their communal tools for making artwork, jewelry, crafts, and gadgets.        

Chapter 12: THE CREATIVE SCHOOL

  • …but too many classrooms offer little to be digested, instead proffering a diet of regurgitation.  That diet threatened to leave our society hungry for future innovators. We’re stuck in an educational system born during the industrial Revolution.    
  • The model doesn’t prepare our students to remake the raw materials of the world and generate new ideas.       
  • An education in creativity lies in the sweet spot between unstructured pay and imitating models.  The sweet spot gives the students precedents to build but it doesn’t condition or constrain their choices.              
  • Praise efforts, not results.
  • Any problem with an open outcome promotes risk-taking.
  • To produce a thriving society of creative adults, it is crucial to inspire risk-taking students who don’t cower in fear of the wrong answer.
  • Giving students a chance to solve real-life problems is an inspiring way to spur creativity.
  • Creativity is the fuel for our species’ runaway progress.
  • …young minds need art.
  • …the arts…are the most accessible way to teach the basic tools of innovation.
  • Every facet of the creative mentality can be taught through the arts…
  • Students learn the experimental method in science class, but the experiments they conduct are often aimed at a predetermined result: as long as the students follow the right procedures, they will arrive at the expected outcome.  In the arts, students learn the experimental method, but without any guarantees.
  • …all of us merit the opportunity to develop our creative capabilities.  
  • …all of us merit the opportunity to develop our creative capabilities.  Otherwise, society provides an incomplete education.

And in summary: Chapter 13: INTO THE FUTURE

  • If we don’t cultivate creativity in our children, we won’t take full advantage of what’s unique about our species.  We need to invest in imagination.

Definition of Creativity

Creativity means different things to different audiences.  And it can be expressed in so many ways that is difficult to come up with a definition that suits everyone. Merriam Webster defines creativity as “the ability to create or the quality of being creative.” So much for not using the same word to define itself.

 

When we were shaping our mission in the early stages of SPARK! – to ignite the spark of creativity inherent in all children – we spent countless hours thinking how we would define creativity. I had researched the topic and the importance of igniting a child’s thinking both in and out of the context of formal education. I was adamant that our definition of creativity not be limited to artistic endeavor or even restricted to “The Arts.”  With STEM focus being so prevalent at that time (2011), It was necessary to make sure our definition included those areas of study. Our belief was, and sill is, that creativity is a more global approach to problem solving.

 

Our Programs Committee, comprised of teachers, a principal, an artist, business people and two individuals who run educational programs outside of schools’ standard curriculum, wrestled with this issue.

 

Here is the result of that deliberation:

Creativity – A sense of wonder that invites exploration and the discovery of new possibilities.

 

This definition starts with a mental process.  A sense of wonder is sparked by many things — a need, a problem, an opportunity, a request, an assignment, and even pure inspiration. It is aligned with the adage, “necessity is the mother of invention” and the ability to question how to do something better, cheaper and faster. Sometimes we see the work of others and that inspires us to question, “What if I did it this way?”

 

Entrepreneurs see an opportunity to make money by creating a product, service, or experience that others need or want. Their sense of wonder comes from a determination to deliver something others will purchase.  In school, teachers give assignments designed to ignite that sense of wonder.

 

Exploration is the actual process of the creative mind. It involves research, production, modification, collaboration, iteration, and trial, to reach a desired result. This aspect of the definition applies to works of art, scientific discoveries, the creation of new products, and more.  

 

Sir James Dyson recalls that he had 5,126 failures, or iterations, until he eventually created the world’s best-selling vacuum cleaner. 

 

The discovery of new possibilities happens throughout the process and is often the culmination of this process.

 

At SPARK! we teach children that creativity is a process that drives us toward a goal.