I have one of the most fun jobs anyone could have. I get to make hands on activities that engage people, particularly kids age 6-12, in the process and history of invention. I also have the challenging job of making new sets of activities every four months while keeping the existing set running. In just over over months we have had more than 70,000 people come through, Draper Spark!Lab, our invention space. Over the past three months I have been feverishly working to create new highly engaging interactives to provide a new set of inventing materials and prompts for our visitors.
There are times when it seems that everything is breaking and that the materials for the new activities are not cooperating. On those days I tend to step back and ask, “Why do I do this?” Then I am reminded why. It is to foster a change in as many lives as possible. With STEM/STEAM education and 21st century skills dotting the news and political talks, I am reminded that I am part of the ground movement that is working hard to make a difference.
Our invention space is focused on developing problem solving skills, encourage collaboration, inspire inventive thought and allow visitors to discover science principals through hands on problem solving. Our whole staff pours themselves into engaging visitors and guiding them through inquiry. The visitor, in turn, ends up owning the experience, the scientific fact that they discovered, and the final outcome of their problem solving endeavor.
Think back to the '60s and the prevalence of quality hands-on exploration toys for kids. Microscopes, chemistry sets, toys that could be modified, model building sets, and toys that mimicked grown up jobs and tasks were on the market. These sets provided the opportunity to fail and the opportunity to succeed. Not to say that these sorts of sets are gone. There are still plenty of products on the market that offer open exploration. There is however something missing. I am not certain what that something is but would like to suggest that it is motivation. We live in a world of appealing distractions. If we can create appealing attractions toward problem solving and 21st century skills we may pull more students into the loop.
It was my early memories of science museums, the Smithsonian, and watching a presenter ignite a hydrogen balloon the kept tugging me toward STEM based pursuits. As I grew older I entered a vocational track then a college science track. From there I experienced that problem solving and skilled jobs were quite often more able to provide for my financial obligations. Admittedly, many of my early STEM based jobs were not quite what I had hoped for. They were not a good fit for my personality and, quite frankly, as dull to me as school. That all changed when I was given the opportunity to work in a science center. In this environment I could focus on the fun, hands-on side of learning, while exercising the skills I acquired through my education. Not only was it fun, but it also served to provide for me and my family. What more could a school-averse young person with a new bride hope for?
I am now 11 years into my museum career. I have had the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of visitors with STEM topics and 21st century skills based activities. The work, though fun has also been hard. Being inherently nonacademic has provided its challenges but being a grown curious kid with STEM and 21st Century skills has been very valuable. I have grown to appreciate some key epiphanies along the way. Learning can be fun. Failure can build resilience. Everyone is innovative.
I know that I will not be a top researcher, the head of a large company, a world renowned artist. It is not my discipline or nature to be any of these. That is why I do what I do. I do it so that visitors, regardless of their path, can develop skills that drive them to be successful in their lives. So that they can find that spot in the economic and educational landscape that in turn provides for their family. I do it so that they can become a top researcher, the head of a large company or a world renowned artist.