PCA Chicago’s charity partner for 2019 is SparkShop, a Chicago-based non-profit. SparkShop is an immersive engineering education program for 4th and 5th grade students that empowers them to see their futures as engineers. In Chicago’s overextended educational system, SparkShop creates transformational opportunities for both students and teachers.
SparkShop was founded by two young women, Tiernan Murrell and Shonali Ditz, who discovered their passion for engineering during their time at Northwestern University. These two remarkable people followed separate, but parallel, paths through school, each joining the Formula SAE team as sophomores, then interning and working in the automotive industry.
The Formula SAE team, an organization where students design, build, test, and race an open-wheeled race car, defined Shonali and Tiernan’s undergraduate years. Shonali joined the frame team, where she welded the steel space frame for the car and designed the brake system. Tiernan joined the suspension team, where she manufactured the car’s custom hubs on a manual lathe and a 3-axis CNC. Both rose quickly to the role of technical project manager, where they thrived for 2 years each.
After graduating with degrees in Manufacturing Engineering and Biomedical Engineering (respectively), Shonali and Tiernan worked at Chicago manufacturing companies where they developed car parts and laser machinery. By 2016, they were friends and roommates, taking cross-country road trips to see stage rallies, the Indy 500, F1 races, and a 24 Hours of LEMONS race. Shonali stayed involved with racing by working as the Crew Chief for a few amateur stage-rally teams, including the 2015 Open Light Champions in the California Rally Series and the 2018 Rally America National Champions.
While Tiernan and Shonali loved the highly-engineered products they worked on industry, they couldn’t ignore the lack of diversity in their offices. They wanted to tackle the talent shortages by creating a solution to the root cause, so they jumped into education. In January of 2017, they began working on SparkShop with the goal of exposing more students to the parts of engineering and manufacturing that they loved so much themselves. “We think that more people would want to become engineers if they knew what engineers really do,” says Shonali.
SparkShop transforms school classrooms into engineering labs where students can follow their curiosities, get their hands dirty, and ask questions. Their unique curriculum contains a mix of experiments, discussions, demonstrations, and problem-solving designed to be age appropriate and standards aligned for 4th and 5th grade students.
The student experience begins with two high-energy visits from Shonali and Tiernan. These 90-minute workshops take place alongside teachers so educators are involved in the lesson but free from the pressure of teaching unfamiliar subjects. SparkShop provides all of the machinery, teaching tools, and consumables needed to create a makerspace regardless of preexisting resources. Students are encouraged to examine their world through an engineering lens.
In the following weeks, the classroom’s teacher leads 4 SparkShop lessons that connect the engineering activities to the humanities. Unlike many STEM programs, SparkShop explicitly connects engineering into topics such as social studies, language arts, and art. Lessons in these subjects are teacher-led, which extends the experience while building new and lasting STEM confidence in teachers. This interdisciplinary approach engages all types of learners and shows teachers how to integrate engineering into their curriculum.
“Our goal is to be students’ first experience with engineering that gets them excited about the variety and opportunities surrounding STEM and launches them forward with the enthusiasm and confidence they need to succeed” says Tiernan.
Donations from PCA members will go to SparkShop’s scholarship fund. Frequently, the schools that need these educational experiences the most have the least funding. The scholarship fund provides need-based discounts that make SparkShop programs accessible to every school, regardless of resources. SparkShop is committed to teaching at least 50% of their programs at no cost to schools!
Our support will help SparkShop reach new students and schools at a pivotal time in their growth. SparkShop has reached 1000 students so far and hopes to build the community support and infrastructure to reach 2000 new students next school year!
As gearheads themselves, Tiernan and Shonali are so excited to be partnering with the PCA Chicago. They’re most looking forward to track days and meeting our members at Potter’s Picnic, Porsches and Pastries, and other events. Look for SparkShop at events throughout the year!