When so many people come into your learning lab, you’re going to see a plurality of outcomes. Some groups arrive with no intention at all and, just browsing the museum, leave after passing through the exhibition. Others enter with eager kids who, subject to a strict schedule, yell and stomp at caregivers’ demands to move on. Surprisingly often, though, inventors leave our room having done something truly profound with a limited amount of time and some relatively simple materials.
The Lemelson Center’s mission is clear—we want everyone to be able to think of themselves as inventive. The most obvious outcome we facilitate in Draper Spark!Lab is a typical challenge; every activity visitors engage in essentially challenges them to “create something that works.” Indeed it’s an exciting moment (sometimes thunderously so) when creative efforts come to fruition.
Nevertheless, what is even more fulfilling for me to see as an educator is when that “something” doesn’t work, but the inventor comes to realize why it didn’t. Moments of “Oh, I shouldn’t have put that there” and “Okay, then maybe if I do this . . .” represent the “Tweak It!” stage of Spark!Lab’s invention process. This cognizant self-correcting, I believe, is most directly linked to the beginnings of thoughtful understanding associated with true learning. One of my main jobs as a public-facing member of our organization is to ensure that this kind of deep thinking receives highlights and praise. Stepping back metacognitively and thinking about one’s own thinking is definitely a central skill for building resilience—the ability to deal with future failures—in any inventive mind. The situations presented in Spark!Lab provide a safe arena in youths’ lives where this battle can play out with low stakes.
One of our team’s goals this year in developing Spark!Lab programming is to “use history as a tool to make the invention process accessible, relevant, and meaningful” to our visitors. For example, one day, while we were messing around with some cords at the station where you design your own videogame controller, a young person told me that he loves Pokémon Go. It was a moment of true realization when the child and I looked at a nearby poster of a Nintendo Game Boy and his father and I explained the historical connections to videogames contemporary to our own childhoods. Even when the activity station merely serves as a conversation starter, we’re able to “Think It!” and “Explore It!” as we never would have otherwise. The Social Studies teacher in me jumps at the chance to bring the past to kids using relevance.
Every once in a while, a child comes into Spark!Lab with an atypically high level of background experience in tinkering, exploring, and creating. Just very recently, for instance, a girl sat down next to me at the sketching station and told me her extremely nuanced and thoughtful opinions on the topic of vending machines and how she had already constructed three different prototypes at home. It’s true my job is to stoke these young inventors’ passion for inventing, but they likely already receive a good amount of sponsorship for their interests if they have already developed several projects before coming here. I’ve found that I can provide more directed encouragement by connecting their work to that of career inventors. When visitors realize they are problem solvers just like “real-life” inventors are, the relevance of the work they are doing hits home meaningfully.
In these kinds of situations, another element of the children’s work worth celebrating is the fact that they are truly focusing on the details of something. Touted as academic “rigor” in today’s public schools, the thoughtfulness necessary to tweak an idea over and over until it represents the best possible iteration is a rare trait, especially in children. Encouraging this tweaking is one of my primary jobs as a Facilitator.
To point out and make children metacognitively aware of their ability to think like inventors as they explore new things is a difficult charge in the limited context of a (sometimes very brief) museum visit. A teenage visitor came up to me recently because he was looking for a particular object in the museum having to do with Bill Nye, the heralded “Science Guy.” It turns out this young man has very serious plans to get his own science show out to the public. I asked if his goals were to establish his own YouTube channel or something, but he insisted he’s shooting for a contract with Netflix. (Our time together was short, but I wished him the best.)
One of the many projects I’ll be working on soon will be developing an evaluation tool to assess the extent to which our activities prompt the kind of deep thinking and repetitive trying and tweaking I’ve described. Once I gather data, the next step will be rethinking and tweaking the way we develop the activities ourselves. It’s so “meta” that it makes one’s head spin; you can tell we’re utilizing Spark!Lab’s own invention process in the work we do.