Sarah Biersteker

Sarah Biersteker, Co-Founder, Spark Plugs Innovation Club

Sarah Biersteker Co-Founded Spark Plugs Innovation Club based on a gap she saw in her own children’s primary educational experience, and the rapidly growing global demand for occupational STEAMED (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics, entrepreneurship and design) skills.

Currently running as after school and holiday programs for children aged 7 to 14 years old, Spark Plugs Innovation Club empowers children to explore their own natural creativity through STEM, arts, entrepreneurial and design activities. Using design thinking tools, children work collaboratively to solve a social issue they all care about.

What research led you to start Spark Plugs Innovation Club?

Working within the tertiary education sector and researching how to support young adults to prepare for the world of work, I quickly realised it was too late to begin developing these skills during university study. These skills needed to be nurtured from birth!

As a mother I could also see there was a disconnection between what my daughters were being taught in primary school and what was happening in the world around us. So, I became driven to create a program for children that focused on building their creative confidence.

The Australian Government is investing heavily in the innovation economy; building business capacity to create new ideas. This innovation creation stems from creativity, so investment needs to start with our children. Investing in building their creative confidence is essential to nurturing them to become the job creators of the future.

How do creative programs help children’s behavioural development?

Learning the fundamentals of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths is essential for success, but it is how children use these fundamentals together that matters most. Being able to apply concepts creatively makes learning deeper. When children actively link their curiosity to a concept and are encouraged to unpack it creatively, they make positive connections with learning.

Curious questioning and divergent thinking are key. Divergent thinking is going wide on a topic without limitation to see what ideas emerge. You do not filter out the ideas or evaluate them, you just keep coming up with more ideas. The beauty is that there are no silly ideas and every child becomes more confident in creating, because there is no self or peer judgement. Creative valuation (rather than evaluation) builds confidence, and a confident child can achieve anything!

Tell us how you’ve adapted the Spark Plugs framework to integrate knowledge from your Master of Teaching, and the impact this has had for the children participating?

The first term I ran the program, I learnt so much! My approach includes the idea that children need complete autonomy when problem-solving, however many children struggled with this freedom. In Spark Plugs Innovation Club the facilitator holds the space and time, without instructing the process. This was challenging for the children, who were used to being told ‘how’ to do something. They weren’t used to being able to do whatever they thought was possible to achieve. They had to unlearn some of their constricted thinking.

After the first term, I really wanted to find out how the Australian curriculum was structured and the philosophies of secondary teaching. I wanted to build more understanding around teaching and learning to inform my experiences. Studying a Master of Teaching allowed me to bridge the gap between secondary curriculum design and industry need and strengthen the Spark Plugs program. Now I can clearly see where children struggle to move past traditional boundaries to solve problems creatively, and I have a greater understanding and appreciation of why that happens. I can also see how to enhance what children learn at school through Spark Plugs Innovation Club activities.

My biggest learning from the Master of Teaching was how to segment knowledge

I can show the declarative knowledge of a task (the why), use a design-thinking pedagogy, and allow children to determine the procedural knowledge (the how) themselves. This creates a less overwhelming space for children and stays authentic to true creative problem-solving.

My next goal is to introduce Spark Plugs into schools, so teachers have an easy framework to continue encouraging students to think bigger and bolder. Teachers are able to cultivate this curiosity and creativity throughout every activity they run, for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week all year. The Spark Plugs Innovation Club program is a fun and engaging way to bring divergent thinking into the classroom.

Every day I learn more and more, so the Spark Plugs Program gets better and better.

What types of programs is Spark Plugs currently offering?

Children need to be confident and capable in order to communicate, collaborate and connect with each other, make mistakes and learn how to problem solve in a safe space. Spark Plugs Innovation Club helps build children’s self-esteem and resilience through the provision of an interactive program built on design-thinking and STEM skills.

Spark Plugs Innovation Club is an outside-school program, offering after-school clubhouse activities and holiday programs. The program is currently offered in the New South Wales Northern Rivers, with more clubhouses to be rolled out across New South Wales and Queensland in 2021 and 2022.

The after-school program runs during the school term, for 1 ½ hours each week. During the session we work on a social issue that the children feel passionately about and collectively decide upon. Over 10 weeks we use a variety of design-thinking tools to create some solutions to mitigate the social issue.

In the April 2020 school holidays, we will run our first 3-day intensive holiday program, where we will address a social issue and present it to the community.

Advice for future female leaders

Just keep moving forward. Even if you’re scared, even if you think you haven’t got it all planned out or know it all yet – just keep moving forward and you will get to where you want to be!

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Founder

Mother, wife, daughter, determined dreamer. Lover of books. Background in Human Resources leadership in global organisations.