It is mid-September here in Washington DC. The rush of summer travelers has gone and students all over the country have just started school. It is too early in the school year for field trips. From our point of view the museum is very empty. Spark!Lab has gone from over 1,000 visitors per day to some days when we barely surpass 100. The temporary lull provides a chance to catch our breath.
For me the volume of visitors has a moderate effect on my ability to catch my breath. On July 30th we changed our Spark!Lab theme to “Planet” and "inventing green." Week 1 of the change is the debugging week. It is at this time that we discover the weaknesses and strengths in our activities. Volunteers and staff assess the degree and modes of interaction that our visitors have with an activity. Stacks of repair forms or a lack thereof inform me about the durability of the current activities.
Though the reduced crowds of mid-September bring with them fewer repair forms, Weeks 2 and 3 after a theme change is my lull. It is in this window that we are still more than 12 weeks out from our next set of activities going live. This is the time for research, raw experimentation, and trying things just because they are interesting or cool. Don’t get me wrong, it is not all fun and play. Each bit of research and each experiment is meant to build on my knowledge and capabilities so that I can push future activities in new and ever engaging directions.
It is during my lull that I explore things that will help me with what I call “stretch” ideas. A “stretch” idea is one where I either know or feel that an idea is plausible but I do not know if is possible for me to accomplish in 4 months. The stretch can be due to Arduino coding beyond my level, building techniques that I have yet to use, or tweaking a cool project seen online so that it will work in our space.
That “I saw it online” stretch can be very challenging. I have seen the video and know that the concept works. The challenge comes in understanding that the video on the web has been created under favorable conditions and often does not depict the failed attempts. Also the video on the web shows someone familiar with the cool project or concept showing how it works. Our challenge is converting that project or concept to something that the general public can work in a relatively intuitive way. Oh, then there are the durability and repeatability issues. At this point, I add the phrase, “What was I thinking? ”to my sketches and notes.
The stretch begins with “what was I thinking” but ends in one of three bins. The first bin holds things that, after hours of consideration, sketching, and some testing, are just not going to work. This bin is the hardest to handle. When considered for what it truly is, this is the “failure bin.” It is where ideas go when I realize that the likelihood of this idea going on our floor in 4 months is very low to none. If you ask our staff they can tell you they have seen items from the failure bin. A couple of Spark!Lab staff have even pitched the concept of curating one or more of these failures into a visitor interactive.
The second bin that an idea can land in is the “not quite bin.” This bin and the failure bin sometimes overlap like the intersection on a Venn diagram. It is a very fluid place as the not quite bin may contain items pulled from the pit of failure. It may also include things that I plug away at with the thought or hope that they will make it into the visitor’s hands. From time to time, the “not quite” items fall into the failure bin, along with a sense of wasted time on my part. Come to think of it, this is just as hard to handle as the outright failures. Having hope, only to see the crashing end, can be demoralizing.
The final bin is the one that makes the stretch worthwhile. This is the “success” bin. A more accurate way to refer to this outcome would be the success table. The ideas that reach this point, rather than being cast into a bin in my office or our storage room, end up on an activity table in Spark!Lab. These are the ideas that touch and are touched by our visitors. These are the ideas that inspire photographs, cause a child to excitedly show their parents, or cause adults to say, “they spent 20 minutes working on this and loved it.” Though I am not on the floor much I do hear stories from our staff and volunteers about the outcomes of the “success” bin ideas. With the memories of success freshly planted in my head, it is now time to get working on another stretch idea and see into which bin it falls.