From November 1–3, 2017, fourteen representatives from the Spark!Lab National Network gathered with the Lemelson Center for the second Annual Spark!Lab National Network Conference. The conference offered attendees, along with staff of the Smithsonian’s Draper Spark!Lab, an opportunity to share highlights from their Spark!Labs, discuss challenges, brainstorm new ideas, and network with one another.
The conference began with each member presenting the work happening within their individual Spark!Labs. We heard about an inspiring initiative at the Discovery in Reno to showcase diverse inventors and to underscore Spark!Lab’s key message that “everyone is inventive.” The Anchorage Museum shared its efforts to develop Spark!Lab-specific school programs to tie collections in its Arctic Studies Center to the theme of invention and innovation, and to pilot an invention-focused, project-based learning program with a local elementary school. Science City at Union Station continues to find creative (and fun!) ways to re-contextualize activities to tie Spark!Lab to museum-wide themes, while the Michigan Science Center shared how losing their supply storage area—which forced them to move all of their materials into Spark!Lab—actually made the space more operationally efficient and provided new inspiration for visitors. The Children's Museum of the Upstate shared how they are tying Spark!Lab to their new exhibition on The Boxcar Children and using the space as part of their adult-only nights, inspiring even grownups to invent! Our newest Spark!Labs at the Midland Center for the Arts and the Edison and Ford Winter Estates showed how they are beginning to integrate Spark!Lab into their museums and are successfully introducing their visitors to the invention process.
After these get-to-know-you presentations, the conference got going in earnest, with three days of learning, sharing, brainstorming—and a little fun. The group participated in hands on sessions focused on prototyping (why, how, and when to do it) and activity development (how do you get from an initial idea to a finished product on the floor?), developing some initial concepts for new activities to be used in their Spark!Labs.
The Draper Spark!Lab team also introduced a brand new activity, Invent a Laser Maze, and led the group through a hands-on training session on how the activity works and how to facilitate the experience with visitors effectively. (Each site will receive a complete copy of the activity later this month. We can’t wait to see laser mazes in action across the Network!)
The Smithsonian’s Accessibility Office talked with the group about ways to broaden access to Spark!Lab and ensure that all visitors feel that Spark!Lab is a place for them, regardless of ability or learning style. Draper Spark!Lab staff introduced the Sensory Resources Toolkit developed in collaboration with the Accessibility Office, and offered simple tips for incorporating accessibility into staff and volunteer training, facilitation, and program design. The team also shared lessons learned from two years of evaluation in Draper Spark!Lab, focusing particularly on the types of interventions—signs, facilitation techniques, and opportunities for visitors to test their inventions—that make the greatest difference in visitor engagement in Spark!Lab.
Perhaps the most useful sessions throughout the conference, however, were the “open discussions.” Each of these hour-long conversations focused on a single topic, and allowed Network members to share successes, challenges, questions, and ideas. The group discussed the staffing models they use in their individual Spark!Labs, how they engage school groups in invention, ways to keep Spark!Lab fresh for both visitors and staff, and what the Lemelson Center can do to make the Network operate more effectively and efficiently. These conversations were illuminating, educational, and inspiring, and highlighted the amazing work happening in all of our Spark!Labs and the thought and care each museum dedicates to engaging their community in invention and innovation.
As part of the conference we also asked each member to share a favorite Spark!Lab moment. (This was my favorite part!) The stories were funny, heartwarming, inspiring—and a wonderful reminder of the power of Spark!Lab to help visitors (especially kids) understand that they are innovative and can play a role in inventing a better future.
This year was the best yet for Spark!Lab. We added four new sites to the National Network and collectively served more than 450,000 visitors from DC to Anchorage. The conference was an exclamation point on an already great year, and I look forward to an even better, more innovative, and more inspiring 2018!