We emerged from our Zoom squares and moved, squinting, into the light. Slippers off, shoes on. A dramatic interpretation, but not far off. Due to all the challenges of Covid, the closures and restrictions, educators from all the Spark!Lab network sites had not physically met in several years.
Museum education usually takes place, well, in museums, with visitors learning through interactions with trained staff, artifacts and displays, and often hands-on activities. And for visitors to Spark!Lab, a space where inventive thinking is encouraged and nurtured, it’s all about hands-on exploration and experimentation. Not only visitors but museum educators, particularly those that facilitate Spark!Lab, crave the rich exchanges and learning experiences that occur by physically being at a museum.
In March, the flagship Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History put on pots of coffee and welcomed colleagues from its network sites in Michigan, Texas, Massachusetts and elsewhere in the US. Over the two-and-a-half-day conference, we were able to discuss and explore a wide variety of topics— museum objects as inspiration for activities; devising and facilitating experiences that spark creative problem-solving in a variety of audiences; and brainstorming ways to address institutional and operational challenges—just to name a few.
The Spark!Lab network sites are located in history museums, community museums, historic homes, children’s museums, science centers, and libraries. Where we come together is believing in the importance of invention education and the impact it can have on visitors of all types. The Spark!Lab network is the nation’s leading resource in invention education. Its goal is to create the next generation of inventors, and it serves as an incubator for museum and STEAM educators and leaders. To this end, the network develops innovative activities that foster 21st century job skills in visitors. This motivates us to continually improve by creatively problem-solving challenges and obstacles.
Coming together recently allowed for a pooling of knowledge, experience, and information. Colleagues shared how they work to meet the needs of their local audiences as well as keeping part-time staff and volunteers engaged and well-trained. We discussed how we can better communicate our work and needs with institutional leaders and fundraising departments. And yes, sometimes we just needed to vent to people who understand.
These discussions will also shape the future of the Spark!Lab network and the materials and support it can provide. An exciting step in this growth process is the introduction of the activity loan program. Several times a year, network sites will have the opportunity to borrow a new invention activity developed at the flagship Spark!Lab and “spark” fresh interest in their repeat visitors.
We held a draft for the sites to select their preferred activities. For coveted ones, such as “Tweak a Pinball Machine,” attendees resorted to offering bribes of baked goods. Luckily, the draft was free from drama but not from laughter and in the end, everyone was satisfied with the activities they were able to borrow. Testing, tweaking, and packing up said pinball machines and related materials, not to mention all the other activities and supplies to send to the network sites, will be its own challenge. However, we look forward to providing the network sites with additional ways in which to engage their audiences.
After considerable discussion, snacking, and playing with fidget toys, conference attendees left with renewed inspiration, focus, and dedication.