As 2015 draws to a close, year-in-review lists flood the news. We read about the year’s most notable people, best books, biggest stories (and scandals), and even the coolest inventions. As I do my own reflecting on the year that’s passed, Spark!Lab features prominently. It was a big year for the “home base” at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), as well as for the Spark!Lab National Network. Collectively, we served more than 325,000 visitors, created dozens of hands-on activities, introduced new programs, and engaged our visitors in the history and process of invention in fun and meaningful ways. Here’s the year in review, Spark!Lab style:
…And we’re back
After a three-year closure for a major renovation at NMAH, Spark!Lab reopened on July 1. Occupying nearly 2,000 square feet on the museum’s first floor, Spark!Lab provides opportunities for children ages six to 12 and their families to participate in hands-on activities, explore objects from the national collections, and of course, invent! Incorporating history, science, engineering, and art, Spark!Lab illustrates the invention process while appealing to varied learning styles, ages, and abilities, and allows visitors to practice 21st century skills, like collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Activities change every few months, so there’s always something new to explore and invent.
Happy Birthday to us
We celebrated the fourth birthday of the Spark!Lab National Network with our first Network site at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum. Since 2011, the staff has found innovative ways to connect Spark!Lab to the rest of the museum, and make its activities relevant to the local community. This year, they introduced activities to get visitors creating flexible structures, crafting birdhouses from recyclable materials, and inventing with gears. These activities are now available for other members of the National Network to use in their own Spark!Labs.
The Last Frontier
In March, we opened our fourth Spark!Lab National Network site at the Anchorage Museum. They have found creative and meaningful ways to connect Spark!Lab to Alaskan innovation. The staff has also experimented with Spark!Lab programs designed for specific audiences, from toddlers to teens to millennials.
KCMO x 2
As part of our commitment to the Network sites, we make regular visits to each museum to conduct training, brainstorm activity ideas, troubleshoot challenges, and work with staff to create a Spark!Lab experience that reflects each museum’s interests and expertise. We visited the Kansas City Spark!Lab at Science City at Union Station in April and December, and were inspired by the ways they’re engaging community groups in Spark!Lab, both as visitors and facilitators.
Back to the Berkshires
In September, we returned to the Berkshire Museum for our first visit since their 2014 opening. To engage Spark!Lab’s many repeat visitors, the staff features fresh content each month, highlighting historic and contemporary inventors and invention news stories.
Motor City, here we come
This fall, we also confirmed the opening of our fifth National Network site at the Michigan Science Center! As an institution that works to “inspire curious minds,” MiSci will be a great addition to the Network. Spark!Lab Detroit opens next spring.
On the Road
Beyond the National Network, this year offered us many opportunities to introduce the Spark!Lab educational approach and some of our hands-on activities to educators, museum professionals, community leaders, kids, and parents around the world.
Supporting all of this work (and more) is the Spark!Lab NMAH team of staff and volunteers, who work both on and off the floor to create a welcoming environment for our visitors. They develop activities, pose invention challenges, ask questions, foster collaboration, help with frustration, and celebrate successes big and small with our visitors. Behind the scenes, they prep materials, manage the supply inventory, repair broken items, and keep Spark!Lab clean and safe. Together, our staff and volunteers have created a place where creativity flourishes and where everyone can be inventive.