In early 2020, our Spark!Lab exhibit space, along with much of the world, closed until further notice. We are now more than a year into that closure, but signs of reopening are slowly emerging. Over this past year, our Spark!Lab team and I have had to transition from our roles of creating hands on experiences to working out methods of digital engagement. I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I have had a hard time not being part of something tactile. As great as digital is, I miss the physical.
Though I spent much of my time working in a digital environment pre-COVID, there was almost always a tactile interactive end product. As I work to design and produce durable and engaging interactives, much of that time is spent using design software. Many of the unique elements of our activities are created and designed for production by 3D printers or CNC equipment. For every hour of physical build time, there is somewhere between two and ten hours of digital design and planning time. It is the physical output, be it a manipulative, a protective housing, or a whimsical add-in item—and what kids did with it—that was most satisfying to me in my work.
Because of the process we used for design and fabrication, our digital assets, design files and such, are rather vast. This array of assets, coupled with a desire to continue providing invention-based activities, led us to make a digital transition. We had been collaborating with Autodesk regarding their Tinkercad and Instructables platforms even before the pandemic. Given that collaboration, we did carve out a Spark!Lab-like experience in the digital world. Being that I am a tactile thinker, the digital parallel played out in my mind, something like this:
We created content on Instructables and used the virtual space on that platform to represent a visit to Spark!Lab’s physical space, complete with the steps of the invention process, ways to explore the history of invention through the Smithsonian’s collection, and challenges that encourage users to explore their own inventive identities.
We connected the Instructables to Tinkercad, Scratch, and some at-home invention challenges. Tinkercad and associated platforms became the digital equivalent of our Spark!Lab activity stations. This is where users/visitors could find a curated set of materials and tools for engaging in the invention challenges we set forth. Through these platforms, we have been able to continue a Spark!Lab-like experience that extends beyond the museum and our Spark!Lab Network sites. You can explore our activities in the “DO Try This at Home” section of this website.
As we begin to see the light of a possible restart of our Spark!Lab space, along with a number of our current and upcoming Spark!Lab Network sites, I have begun building physically again. This has been so life-giving and refreshing. Designs that I have been creating and tweaking in software are now being printed and carved out in physical form. At this point, I go into the office to build about once per week. In the few building sessions I have had, I have found myself feeling very much at home again. I am back to joyfully fighting the nuanced bugginess of our CNC, the challenges of real-world fasteners, and physical realities like weight, space, texture, sharp items, crush hazards, and hot surfaces.
After one time in the shop, I left with two small cuts on my hands, a skinned knuckle, and a few splinters. I had one-half of a failed CNC job that actually gave the part a much more interesting look than I had designed. I had some half-built activity components sitting on the work tables. I was able to fasten parts together with screws, nuts, and bolts. There is just something about the tactile experience that is so satisfying. For me, grabbing tools from the toolbox to assemble recently produced parts is like sitting in a favorite chair that has just been taken out of storage or reading a well-loved book that you forgot you still had on the shelf.
As I enjoyed how the real world offers types of failure, frustration, and success not provided by digital experiences, I began to wonder about our visitors. What will re-engaging with physical interactives be like for them? How will it feel and what will it look like? Many of those in our target audience of ages 6-12 have grown up on digital interfaces. I did not. I am biased toward the physical. I would argue that many in our target audience range are biased toward digital. The pandemic caused all of us to transition even more into that digital world. What effect might that have on the expectations, interests, and skills of young learners?
For me, the return to the physical has been welcomed but slow to start, as there has been a need to refresh how I think. I have found myself asking questions like, what were the steps for using this tool? What is the correct way to not get hurt with this equipment? How do these parts go together? These are questions I have not thought about for quite a while. They used to be part of a daily mindset, but have become slightly rusty over the past year.
This leads to me back to the question, how will our Spark!Lab visitors re-approach the real world of hands on interactives? Will the visitors dive back into our hands on invention challenges or will they be “slow to start?” How will they deal will real world constraints like materials, textures, spatial constraints, fit, and weight, with semi-familiar and unfamiliar activity materials? It will be exciting to see where our visitors are and how they respond when we can gather again in the physical Spark!Lab space. My hope is that it looks like reconnecting with an old friend—a few moments of mild awkwardness, followed by being right where you left off the last time you met.