Sarah Sparks named 2023 Outstanding Professional Employee

A photo of Sarah Sparks

Sarah Sparks, 4-H youth development professional at University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has been named the 2023 Outstanding Professional Employee by the University of Maine Professional Employees Advisory Council. 

The award is based on a professional employee’s demonstrated dedication to serving others, maintaining the highest level of professional services, creating a better campus environment and public service engagement in their field and community. Award recipients are recognized for their accomplishments with a $1,000 stipend.

Sparks started at UMaine Extension in 2008. Over the past 15 years, she has become one of the leaders for the 4-H Youth Development program and became the first statewide 4-H science professional in Maine. Sparks provided leadership for a number of initiatives, including the 4-H STEM Ambassador program, in which she provides training, coordinating and support for college students at various University of Maine System campuses. Since 2014, the program has reached over 6,500 youth, and more than 550 university student volunteers have completed the training. 

In 2014, Sparks also developed the model for the 4-H Science Toolkits, which include free curricula with associated materials available for loan to formal and informal educators from UMaine Extension offices. The toolkit lending library currently has nearly 200 individual kits in almost 50 unique STEM subjects. Annually, over 150 adults borrow the 4-H Science/STEM toolkits, reaching more than 2,000 youth with free hands-on STEM learning. Toolkit development is part of 4-H’s role in the $20 million National Science Foundation grant to UMaine/Maine EPSCoR focused on environmental DNA. Sarah has facilitated workshops on the development and use of 4-H Science Toolkits at multiple state and national conferences, including the Maine Science Teachers Association conference, the Positive Youth Development Institute, the 4-H Afterschool Academy, the National Science Teachers Association’s regional and national conference, and the Kids, Kids, Kids conference.

Between 2018 and 2022, Sparks recruited, trained and supervised college interns to deliver weekly 4-H Summer of Science activities through more than 150 workshops at each of the five Southern Maine YMCA camps, and she led workshops for all Southern Maine YMCA camp counselors on STEM instruction. This program model has been shared widely, including through a presentation at the National Extension Conference on Volunteerism in 2019 and a published article that Sparks co-authored, “Programming Where the Kids Are: An Informal STEM Series at Day Camps to Improve Attitudes Towards Science and Engineering” in the Journal of STEM Outreach. Sparks was recognized as a regional and national award winner by the National Association of Extension 4-H Youth Development Professionals. 

In addition, she is part of a NASA-funded project called Learning Ecosystems Northeast (LENE). The LENE project includes education partners from around the northeast, including classroom teachers, librarians, science centers, 4-H, WaYS, Gateway Community Services and other educators to create learning ecosystems for educators and youth, building climate and data literacy skills. Under her leadership, UMaine Extension 4-H received $785,000 through a five-year grant, in partnership with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

In her multiple letters of nomination for the award, Sparks was cited for her unique ability to recruit and manage volunteers, such as for the “4-H Unconference” for 4-H volunteers, National 4-H Youth Science Day and Maine 4-H Days, where she created volunteer role descriptions and put together a planning committee. As a result of the volunteer system she designed, the statewide event grew from 150 participants to over 500 participants. She is now co-leading a pilot training for librarians to partner with STEM content volunteers to bring additional programs to youth throughout the state via summer library programs.

“One of the most impressive skills Sarah possesses is her ability to work with and engage volunteers in all levels of her work,” one nominator noted. “Sarah has worked to increase her understanding of volunteer systems and has participated in many professional development opportunities. Sarah’s quality of work showcases her understanding of how to develop relationships with our volunteers, and her ability to listen to them and include their ideas and feedback to improve programming efforts.”

Sparks was also commended for her exceptional service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sparks provided leadership for the virtual 4-H summer learning program. Maine 4-H continues to offer virtual programs to young people around the state, currently providing leadership for the 4-H Summer Learning Series.  

“When the pandemic stopped everyone in their tracks, Sarah stepped up to lead us in delivering experiential, hands-on, virtual programs during a time of great instability — no easy task!” another nominator wrote in their letter. “Sarah’s clear and visionary ideas came to life because of her leadership and facilitation skills; she was the compass that guided our team through the storm. I truly believe that we owe the significant ‘pandemic success’ of Maine 4-H to Sarah’s ability to bring us all together to get it done.”

Sparks was also cited for her positive community impact. She has served on the Maine Science Teachers Association board for many years, leading the connection for UMaine 4-H between formal and informal science learning constructs. She regularly engages with local librarians, school staff, after school coordinators, YMCA, Boys and Girls club staff and other community partners. 

“All of Sarah’s work has a positive impact on the communities in which she works, and ultimately on the children in those communities,” a nominator wrote. “Sarah’s ability to work in partnership with schools, volunteers, non profit organizations, and government agencies has always led to a directly positive impact on youth in Maine, often in rural and underserved communities. The skills that Sarah employs to facilitate groups of people through tough projects is the same skill she draws on to stay focused on her purpose — which is to create positive youth development opportunities for kids.”