Sparking New Ideas, from Blocks to Business Plans

One student is constructing a giant block wall, while another forms shapes with Play-Doh. At nearby tables, students draw and rifle through a stack of worksheets, pausing occasionally to reflect before diving back in. Someone flips through a magazine, excitedly cutting out photos. In the middle of a busy day at Yale, these students have all taken a break from studying for an hour of hands-on brainstorming, in a new program at Tsai CITY termed a Spark Session.

Program creator Nya Holder and students take part in a Spark Session at CITY.

The idea to create these open-ended brainstorming sessions came out of summer conversations among CITY staff as they conceptualized a lineup of programs that would foster a culture of inclusive innovation. As an extracurricular hub for students from across Yale’s campus, CITY aims to engage students who are in all stages of innovation processes, including those who may not have a defined idea but are interested in exploring the methods and practices of innovation. From an initial staff pitch to create an open space for students to build creative problem-solving and idea generation skills, the format of Spark Sessions took shape. The program launched with the start of the fall 2018 semester, offering five drop-in, hourlong sessions over the course of the term.

So, what does a Spark Session look like? Program creator Nya Holder describes it as “structured chaos.” The “structure” takes the form of a series of stations, designed around different ways that people think and develop concepts. These stations include:

Brainstorm: A station designed to introduce templates for thinking through an idea, like idea webs and open-ended questions.

Build: An opportunity to get hands-on with childhood favorites like Legos and Play-Doh.

Play: This station offers a pause to connect with others, and perhaps get inspired in the process — with the help of games like Jenga and Connect 4.

Craft: Here, students can draw, sketch, write, and more to convey ideas they are working on.

Student Christina Neiva de Figueiredo, who is working with Holder to develop the Spark Sessions program, talks with participants during a recent session.

Before diving into these stations, students begin the session with a few prompts and activities to warm up their brains. Once they have a loose idea or topic to focus on, they rotate through the four stations, building on their idea in a different way during a brief stop at each table. As the end of the hour approaches, the group gathers back for a sharing session, which Holder describes as the most rewarding part of the program; students might share their fledgling idea, reflect on an insight they gained from a particular station, or connect over convergences with others’ ideas. From there, they head off for the rest of their day on campus, perhaps with the spark of a new project in mind.

“I really liked discussing and brainstorming with other people, as it’s really easy to get into my own head. Learning how different perspectives change an idea was incredible.” — student survey respondent

Already, Holder has witnessed some unexpected moments of inspiration. One student entrepreneur, who had been spending much of his time outside of class trying to create the best user experience for his startup’s app, happened to drop a block while at the “build” station, and this single dropped block sparked a new idea for how the app should work. Other students found that different tools opened new pathways to approaching difficult problems: one student used a business model framework worksheet to map out a plan for developing a student club pipeline, for example, while another participant discovered that drawing offered a new way to think about promoting gender equity in the workplace. For some students, the Spark Session also gave them a space to approach their day-to-day work from a new perspective; one person used the stations’ tools to think through the best experiment design for an upcoming scientific research project. Another student, feeling stressed about a difficult problem set, gravitated toward the Play-Doh, taking time to calm down and refocus.

A participant at the “build” station.

Building on these successes, CITY has also begun to incorporate Spark Sessions into other events, treating the format as a module that can be attached to relevant programs. This fall, for example, CITY partnered with Yale’s La Casa Cultural and Asian American Cultural Center to launch the Critical Innovation Fund and Arts and Media Innovation Awards, respectively. Each of these programs focuses on a particular issue and invites students to propose original projects for funding and support, seeking to engage students who might not self-identify as “entrepreneurs” or “innovators.” With this in mind, Holder led a mini-Spark Session at each program’s initial information session, giving students an onramp to brainstorming and developing ideas that could turn into project proposals.

As she continues to develop the Spark Sessions program, Holder hopes to keep learning from these diverse use cases. One element she’s considering, she says, is students’ desire to have a little more time at the end of a session to discuss their newly fleshed-out ideas with others and to work on next steps. She’s also eager to test out how Spark Sessions work with different groups of students or when applied to particular focus areas and kinds of problem-solving. Ultimately, she hopes the Spark Sessions format will continue to grow and evolve as a risk-free space for developing ideas, whether students are deep into building a venture or just curious about different mindsets for approaching problems. They just might spark something they can take with them after the hourlong session: “[I realized] that people like my idea,” reported one participant in a post-event survey, “and that I should talk to people about it more and start executing it.”

Learn more about Spark Sessions and other CITY programs here. At Yale? Join us for an upcoming Spark Session!