The SPARK Community-Based Social Innovation Challenge offers Grinnell organizations and students the opportunity to work together to address poverty related challenges faced by the larger Grinnell community. Community partners identify challenges unique to their work and agree to work with groups of students to identify short and long term solutions to their challenge. Students apply to work on particular challenges. The Wilson SPARK Committee reviews the applications and selects the students best suited to each team. (Students may apply either individually or in teams of 3-5.) These student teams then consult with their community partner, conduct relevant research, and utilize their and their Community partners’ knowledge and connections to create solutions that are innovative, practical, well-thought out, and beneficial to the community.

In early April SPARK will hold a pitch contest where the teams will be given 5-7 minutes to explain their challenge and pitch their solutions to a team of community judges. This event is open to both the campus and larger community. The judges offer constructive feedback on the solutions and, taking into account audience excitement and participation, determine which solution will receive up to $15,000 of implementation funding from the Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership. With these funds and through the support of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service and the Service Learning Work-Study Program, SPARK Community-Based Social Innovation Challenge winners and their community partners may implement their solutions over the course of the following year.

SPARK Short Course

This year there will be a short course to help support the SPARK Challenge. This course, taught by Professor Monty Roper, will provide a series of workshops to help students build their skills in researching and effectively presenting solutions to social problems. Topics that will be covered include working ethically in the Grinnell Community, Design Thinking, project management, sustainability, and public speaking, among others.

The SPARK course is NOT a required part of the Challenge, though it may serve as an invaluable resource. Additionally, anyone is welcome to drop in for individual sessions and people who are not participating in SPARK are welcome to join the class as well.

2018 Challenge Details

2018 Challenge: Technology Access

Over the past few decades rural communities have seen key community resources consolidated and moved to larger metropolitan settings. In order to access key resources such as drivers’ licenses, state IDs, SNAP benefits, and educational programming, people now, more than ever, need access to technology. This year’s SPARK Community-Based Social Innovation Challenge will focus on technological access in Grinnell and our surrounding communities. Learn more about how you may work with our community partners and develop solutions to barriers to technological access.

2018-2019 Partners

  • Governor’s Task Force for Rural Internet: Looking broadly into how to provide high-speed internet to rural areas
  • Grinnell Chamber of Commerce Business & Residential Internet Collaboration: How to upgrade old infrastructure in the town of Grinnell to make things faster in town when there is no profit motive for providers to do it
  • Library Internet Bandwidth: How to provide sufficient service to many users to prevent the system from slowing or crashing
  • MICA (Mid-Iowa Community Action) Access to Technological Tools: How to provide clients with access to online resources (SNAP, etc.) where internet is limited or clients lack resources necessary to access internet

Important Dates

To apply to SPARK 2018, go to www.tinyurl.com/GrinnellSPARK2018

Wednesday, October 3rd: SPARK Challenge Applications open

Monday, October 22nd, 11:59pm: SPARK Applications Due

Monday, October 15th, 7:30-8:30pm: Information Session in JRC 209

Monday, October 29th: First day of the SPARK course (not required to participate)

SPARK Information

Roles and Responsibilities

  1. Communication with community partner: Student teams are expected to communicate regularly with their community partners. They must meet at least twice in-person — once to discuss the nature and background of their problem and once to discuss their first draft of their solution. All other communication can be done via electronic methods or via phone calls if the community partner prefers. The community partner will serve as mentor and advisor to the team and it is in the team’s best interest to utilize the community partner’s wisdom as effectively as possible. For example, the community partner can provide connections to other community members with insight into the problem and will be a valuable resource to the team. Moreover, the community partner has the power to veto a solution provided by the team if he/she has serious concerns about the solution’s viability or social impact.
  2. Solution Development: This solution should be innovative in nature, but more importantly, it should be wise, responsible, and doable. Solution complexity will likely depend on the nature of the problem that the team is addressing, but strong solutions will seek to address the problem in the most effective manner possible.
  3. Budget Creation: Teams must submit an estimated budget for their project. This budget should, as accurately as possible, estimate costs for supplies, implementation, resources, etc. Good budgeting is essential to solution viability.
  4. The Pitch: Pitches will be 5-7 minutes in length and should clearly and concisely outline the challenge and solution (both immediate and long term/systemic). Pitches should be engaging and should “sell” the judges and audience that their solution should win implementation funding. Students pitching the idea are welcome to use any props that they deem helpful to their presentation. Not all team members must pitch on stage, but at least one team member must do the presentation. Community partners may be part of the pitch if they so choose. The judges will ask questions to further clarify the solution and may offer constructive feedback. Audience’s engagement and excitement for the solution may also be taken into account in the final results, so creating an engaging pitch is essential to the process. Pitch coaching sessions will be provided for all participants to help teams construct their pitch.

Benefits of Being a SPARK Challenge Innovator

  • Cash Prize. Each member of the top three teams will receive cash awards as follows:
    • First place: $200 each
    • Second place: $100 each
    • Third place: $50 each
  • Résumé Building. Winners can identify themselves as a SPARK, Community-Based Social Innovation Challenge Winner on their résume. More than titles though, the skills students may cite on their resume, including: project development, project management, budget management, sales, etc. are incredibly attractive to employers and to graduate schools.
  • Employment Opportunity. Members of winning teams may apply to get paid through service learning work-study to help their community partner implement their solution. The Service Learning Work-Study program also offers bimonthly professional development opportunities such in areas such as grant writing, design thinking, project management, etc.
  • Community Engagement. Teams get to work with amazing community members to develop ideas that will have a meaningful impact in our town!

Past Projects

Last year, teams worked on a variety of problems, including telling the story of rural poverty, the lack of high-speed internet in rural areas, affordability of early childhood education, lack of rural public transit systems, and the role of community gardens, among others. To solve these problems, students worked with a broad variety of community-based organizations such as the Hatchery on Main, the Greater Poweshiek Community Foundation Grinnell, Mid-Iowa Community Action, and the Grinnell Regional Medical Center.

First Place:

First Place team for 2016-2017 standing in front on a Ramsey-Weeks truck which is used for their project

Student Team Members:

Denisha Renovales, Sydney Kasper, and Roselle Tenorio

Challenge Mentor & Sponsor:

Danielle Wonderly, Mid Iowa Community Action (MICA)


Food insecurity is a very real issue for many rural residents.  Many work long hours or have very limited access to transportation.  How do you get food to those who cannot come to the local food pantry?  How might a mobile food pantry be feasible and sustainable? 


Through a partnership with MICA and Ramsey-Weeks, Inc., a local realtor and insurance agency, launched a mobile food pantry and resource service.  Coordinating efforts between MICA staff, a summer intern and community volunteers we provided a holistic mobile service to low-income households throughout Poweshiek county for those who do not have access to transportation and thus food and other self-sufficiency resources offered by MICA.

Second Place:

Student Team Members:

Dylan Bremner, Shelby Frazier, Nicole Nie, and Jianting Chen

Challenge Mentor & Sponsor:

Rachael Kinnick, Grinnell Chamber of Commerce


Access to transportation is one of the most challenging aspects of life for rural folks when there is no regular public transit system.  What might be a new form of transportation system that is economically feasible for low-income people and that could benefit our rural population?


This solution is to institute a shuttle system which would operate in collaboration with Peoplerides. The system will operate on a fixed-stop shuttle route until late afternoon and then continue throughout the day on a demand-response based schedule. Local businesses will fund the program in exchange for increased revenue brought in by the riders, benefiting both themselves as well as low-income riders.

Third Place:

Student Team Members:

Noma Shields and Max HIll

Challenge Mentor & Sponsor:

Dan McCue at the United Way of Grinnell


Worldwide poverty is most often a rural phenomenon (76% of those facing issues of poverty live in rural settings).  However, when we think of poverty, images of urban poverty most often come to the fore.  How do you “tell the story” of rural poverty to people who are used to seeing a particular form of urban poverty?


Grinnell Story Maps is an interactive storytelling platform that utilizes mapping software to pinpoint the experiences of rural poverty in Grinnell. Through crowdsourcing, anyone in the Grinnell community can contribute pictures and captions to the map which will not only engage community members but bring awareness to potential stakeholders and supporters of rural poverty within Grinnell.

About the Wilson Center

Endowed by Grinnell alumni Donald and Winifred Wilson (’25 & ’27), the Wilson Center is the hub of innovation and leadership at Grinnell College.

The Wilson Center works to further catalyze leadership and innovation among our students through complementary coursework, personal experiences, and event programming that inspires them and prepares them to leverage their liberal arts education into success as leaders and innovators.

For more information, go to the Wilson Center website.