Spark!Lab, the Center’s premier educational program, engages, and empowers families to participate in the invention process at NMAH as well as nationally and internationally through outreach initiatives.
In its second year, the Draper Spark!Lab welcomed 220,000 visitors who explored, created, collaborated, and invented. Activities were designed around family-friendly themes that connected to NMAH collections and changed every four months, ensuring Spark!Lab visitors had something new to explore each time they visited.
During 2017, the themes included:
- Home (November 2016-February 2017)
- Community (March-July 2017)
- Eat (August-November 2017)
In collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Office, the team began a project to make Spark!Lab more accessible and inclusive for ALL visitors. We initiated “inclusive customer service” training for our staff, volunteers, and interns, and offered verbal description training to help staff and volunteers develop skills to work with visitors who are blind or have low vision. We also developed, tested, and introduced the Sensory Resource Toolkit to help Spark!Lab visitors, particularly those on the autism spectrum or with other sensory or cognitive processing disabilities, prepare for and participate in a visit to Spark!Lab.
Spark!Lab National Network
We added four new Spark!Lab National Network sites this year:
- The Children’s Museum of the Upstate in Greenville, SC (February)
- Midland Center for the Arts in Midland, MI (June)
- Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, FL (October)
- US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL (November)
These sites join our other four locations:
- Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno, NV
- Science City at Union Station in Kansas City, MO
- Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, AK
- Michigan Science Center in Detroit, MI
In total, our eight Network sites served over 300,000 visitors this year and developed more than 20 new programs and activities to engage their visitors in the invention process.
From November 1-3, the Lemelson Center hosted the 2nd Annual Spark!Lab National Network Conference at the Smithsonian. 14 Network representatives from seven sites joined the Draper Spark!Lab staff for three days to share highlights from their Spark!Labs, discuss challenges, brainstorm new ideas, and network with one another.
We kicked off a multi-year collaboration with the University of Westminster. Two student interns traveled from London in May to spend the summer learning about Spark!Lab and practicing facilitation strategies for engaging children and families in the invention process. At the end of the summer, they returned to Westminster to help train UK-based volunteers to work with kids during “pop up” Spark!Lab events held both on the university campus and in the local community. The first event in October drew more than 100 people.
Spark!Lab Inventive Creativity Kits
Designed to provide children with the same kind of hands-on experience at home that they enjoy when visiting Spark!Lab, the Spark!Lab Smithsonian Inventive Creativity Kits have had another successful year. There are now ten kits in total. Two new kits were introduced in 2017—Invent a Stellar Solar Lamp and Invent Amazing Art Gadgets. In April, the kits were featured on Good Morning America’s “Steals and Deals” segment as a featured product for kids.
From August through November, Arby’s included Spark!Lab-themed toys with kids’ meals. There were four toys in all: a light bulb, a wheel, a glider, and a sun dial. Each toy came with an insert that included brief historical information about the invention and a link to the Spark!Lab web page. About 2.75 million toys were distributed through the promotion.
In January, we launched the 6th annual Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge in collaboration with Cricket Media’s ePals online platform. The theme for 2017 was “inventing green,” and we challenged kids to create an invention that addressed a real-world environmental issue. Alone or in groups, kids had to work through the invention process, identifying a problem, researching possible solutions, sketching designs, building and testing prototypes, and creating compelling ads or “sell sheets” to market their ideas. More than 500 children ages 5-18 from around the world participated in the Challenge, and winning inventions included blinds with solar panels on them to generate electricity for homes, a personal environmental quality monitor, an app to teach animal conservation, and a device that drains water from roofs and gutters into a tank so that it can be collected and used for other purposes.
SPARK App League
In November, the Lemelson Center collaborated with the city of Gilbert, Arizona in support of their one-of-a-kind SPARK App League Game Jam competition. Hosted at Arizona State University, the Game Jam brought together middle and high school students from across Arizona to learn about the power of coding, and to participate in a two-day challenge to create a new mobile app. For the 2017 event, the Lemelson Center and SPARK App collaborated to integrate Spark!Lab themes and activities into the competition, requiring the teams to create a digital invention challenge for their users. Lemelson team members provided guidance and advice to the teams and facilitated Spark!Lab activities throughout the event.